Darien Schools' unemployment and workers' compensation costs are at a three-year high, as are the costs in other neighboring districts, like New Canaan. Some administrators are questioning the practice of unemployment payouts to substitute teachers -- a small but present contributing factor to the general unemployment cost hike.

Connecticut law doesn't distinguish between a full-time teacher and a substitute teacher -- both are under the umbrella term of "educational employee," according to David Ricciuti, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Labor.

This means that, like full-time teachers, substitute teachers are eligible for unemployment compensation during periods when school is in session and work is not available to them.

"It's like you agreed to work part-time at Stop & Stop," Ricciuti said. "If you don't get hours for a week you are employed, you are going to be eligible."

Though only one substitute teacher at New Canaan Public Schools currently receives unemployment benefits -- totaling about $30 per week -- Steven Swerdlick, New Canaan Public Schools' assistant superintendent for human resources, said the law "just doesn't seem right."

"People agree to be a substitute knowing it's not going to be work every day, and then turn around and ask for unemployment," he said, adding, "We struggle with the idea that substitutes can collect unemployment at all. This is why it's called a `substitute' -- because you're there when a teacher is absent. They aren't the same thing."

Fay Ruotolo, Norwalk Public School's human resource officer, describes the district's efforts to regulate unemployment claims from substitutes as "a constant battle."

Though she said a small percentage of substitutes in the district currently receive unemployment, administrators must carefully monitor all claims to avoid bypassing wrongful ones.

"Over the summer, the substitutes tried to make a claim for unemployment," she said. "They aren't supposed to, but if you're not on top of it, it can slip."

More often, substitutes make faulty claims out of ignorance, not malice, she said. But all wrongful claims are equally expensive to fight in terms of time and resources, she said.

"Ultimately, if the individual appeals, a hearing is held," she said. "Recently, I had to drive to Hamden because the hearings are held in the office closest to where the individual lives."

Darien Public Schools Superintendent Donald Fiftal said the district objects to all unemployment claims filed by a substitute teacher.

"We do object, but as far as I know, so far our objections have not won out in any cases," he said. "It's a hard system to monitor. Someone can decline a job in Darien, but accept a job in Norwalk. And I don't know who's keeping any kind of centralized record on it, so there is a potential for abuse."

Fiftal said he generally supports the concept of unemployment insurance when it's not abused.

"But I don't know how you can easily make a determination for substitute teachers, since it's not permanent employment," he said. "I think it's a difficult area to monitor, and I think extending benefits to substitutes raises a question about maybe other fields where people do substitute work other places and might not qualify."

Swerdlick said that it can be difficult to discern which claims are valid under the law.

He offered this example of a valid claim: "If someone works with us for, let's say, a few weeks and then leaves to take a job in Ohio ... and gets laid off after six months or a year ... New Canaan Public Schools has to pay for some of that person's unemployment. This is the formula the states use."

A common example of an invalid claim is any instance of a substitute seeking unemployment benefits at the same time he or she is turning down opportunities to work, he said.

Darien's school district has disputed each of the four or five unemployment claims filed by substitutes this year without success, according to District Director of Finance Richard Huot.

"The response from unemployment was that when these people are not working, they are eligible for unemployment," he said.

Huot used to dispute the claims more frequently, he said.

"The first several times, I disputed it. But after that, it was just a waste of time and energy," he said.

"My argument is that we still have openings; if they remain as active subs, we can hire them. But then, if they applied, they would still be working for us periodically and collecting unemployment too," he said.

In New Canaan, Swerdlick said the district "does not have a big problem" with substitutes making unemployment claims when they shouldn't, but said that it could easily become a problem if substitutes began making knowingly invalid claims. He acknowledged that it is possible for substitutes to play the system.

"It's the public's money and we try to be as responsible as possible in the way we monitor this," he said.

Swerdlick said the district cut down on such incidents two years ago when it acquired a new software system called Aesop.

Aesop is an automated substitute placement and management software system. Swerdlick said it allows staff to indicate days they will be absent, up to two months in advance. Full-time teachers also have the option to choose five preferred substitutes to cover their classrooms while they are absent, he said. Substitutes can log into this system, view openings and elect when they want to work, he said.

Since adopting this system, Swerdlick said the district has cut down on the number of unemployment claims from substitutes who turned down job opportunities.

"They can't just turn down a job and request unemployment," he said. "With this new software system, we're getting better management."

Darien schools also use the Aesop system.

"The process is similar to the old format, but it's done by computer," Fiftal said. "The computer calls and then the substitute can either accept or decline the assignment."

This allows the district to monitor how many times a substitute accepts or declines an assignment, Fiftal said.

"It does happen that they can decline an assignment and pick up unemployment," he said. "It may be one thing if they decline one assignment, but what if they decline 25 times in a year? They could still get that claim."

Norwalk Public Schools uses a similar automated system called SubFinder, Ruotolo said.

Swerdlick said that New Canaan sometimes challenges unemployment claims. But each appeal costs the district time and money, he said.

"We've won maybe two or three cases over the last couple years," Swerdick said.

Ruotolo said Norwalk Public Schools rarely wins a claim unless the individual in question demonstrates willful misconduct. She said the district is making more unemployment payouts to all teachers right now because the benefit is in high demand.

"There's a lot of talk of unemployment now, so I think people are more aware of what they are entitled to," she said. "There's certainly an increased need for it. ... I think the law probably needs to be looked at again with the public school system in mind."

Staff Writer Maggie Gordon contributed to this story.