Three days before Christmas, the headmaster of Boston’s only vocational school wrote staff to remind them to make the most of the next school day and not let students coast into the holiday break with a “free day.”
But Shawn Shackelford, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School’s headmaster, had other plans in mind. He was taking the day off.
It was hardly the first time, a Globe review of city payroll records has found. On nine occasions over the past year, Shackelford was absent either the day before or after a holiday break or weekend. In all but one instance, he used a sick day, the records show.
When confronted with the findings, Boston school officials reviewed Shackelford’s records and, they said, determined he was not sick on any of the eight days in question. In response, two of the sick days will be reclassified as personal days, while he will not be paid for the other six, according to officials. Shackelford will be required to reimburse the system $3,000, school officials said.
In a statement, Shackelford said the mistake occurred because he “neglected to specifically tell my secretary how to code days in which I was absent.”
“That was a mistake on my part and I take full responsibility for it,” said Shackelford, who declined an interview request. “There was never an attempt to abuse or circumvent the system.”
Shackelford’s absences have caused frustration at the troubled public school in Roxbury, where almost half of the 900 students are chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 18 days in a year. Many staff members complain privately that Shackelford has not only set a bad example for students but is guilty of a double standard as he seeks to improve the attendance of other staff members.
Madison Park has struggled with low MCAS scores and graduation rates for years, and in December the state’s education department designated it as underperforming. If student test scores don’t improve sharply within three years, it could be placed in state receivership.
Shackelford was hired last summer to help overhaul the school, a centerpiece of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s high school redesign initiative. Since arriving at the school, he has been working without a state license because he lacked previous experience at a vocational school.
Boston school officials chalked up the sick days to an unintentional bookkeeping error and said Shackelford had been traveling to Florida to help his wife with their twin babies.
“Those days were incorrectly coded as sick days based on the Madison Park’s administration’s misunderstanding that child care qualifies as a sick day,” officials said in a statement.
Repeatedly taking sick days alongside a weekend or holiday break is frowned upon under the school system’s work rules. Employees who do so four times can be flagged for potential sick time abuse and suspended without pay if the pattern persists.
The recent case represented at least the second time that school officials revised Shackelford’s payroll records in response to complaints. Last winter, after receiving an anonymous letter that accused Shackelford of counting himself present on days he was out, administrators designated some of his absences as sick days.
Shackelford’s latest sick day came on July 5, just four days after he signed a one-year extension that boosted his annual salary by $18,000 to about $147,000.
Headmasters in the Boston public schools receive 15 sick days and three personal days a year, but no vacation time. They can accumulate unused sick and personal days.
For many at Madison Park, Shackelford’s Dec. 22 e-mail was the final straw. In late January, staffers and other concerned individuals wrote schools Superintendent Tommy Chang and the mayor’s office, accusing Shackelford of marking himself present on days he took off.
“The staff at Madison Park is currently being reprimanded with verbal and written warnings regarding accountability for their presence at school,” they wrote. “It is only fair and respectful that the same is expected from all.”
School officials said last month they “immediately reviewed the matter and addressed it” with Shackelford’s supervisor, Kevin McCaskill, the executive director of Madison Park. McCaskill said he had given Shackelford advance permission to take five days off between October and late December to help his wife with their twin babies.
On Feb. 10, Madison Park administrators faxed a memo to the school system’s human resources department, asking that some of his absences be counted as sick days.
Those included the Fridays before Columbus Day and Halloween weekend and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
But this spring, the same pattern emerged, with Shackelford using sick days the day after Easter, the Fridays before Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, and the day after the Fourth of July.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said teachers would never be allowed to use so many sick days before holiday weekends.
“Teachers would absolutely be disciplined,” Stutman said. “I think the school department should supervise their headmasters as carefully as it expects principals to supervise teachers.”
McCaskill defended Shackelford’s performance and said his family was moving to Boston this summer.
“He arrives at work at 6:30 a.m. nearly every morning and his days normally extend past 6 p.m.,” McCaskill said in a statement. “He has been forthright and honest with his dealings with me regarding the days he has taken off to tend to his family in Florida and help prepare them for their transition to Boston.”
Shackelford’s status at Madison Park remains uncertain. Under state law, educators need at least three years of vocational school experience to obtain a headmaster’s license. Before coming to Boston, he served as a teacher and administrator in Michigan and Florida.
The school system secured a one-year waiver for Shackelford last year and plans to apply for another one this fall.
But state rules require Boston to conduct a new search for a headmaster this summer to attract licensed candidates. Eight candidates have applied.James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.