Substitute teachers in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools can’t work more than 29 hours a week these days as part of an effort to avoid having to pay federal penalties, starting in 2015, for not providing health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours a week.

Several School Board members jumped on the issue when it came up unexpectedly Thursday night during an unrelated presentation on recent school performance scores.

Board member Mary Lynch said the 29-hour-a-week cap is causing havoc at schools on Thursdays and Fridays after substitute teachers have reached their limit.

“You use a sub for the first 3½ days of the week, and then you can’t find someone to cover those classrooms,” Lynch said.

Board members Jill Dyason and Vereta Lee also said they received complaints about the 29-hour limit, which they said they were unaware of before. They said they want more information from school administrators about the rule.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said the school system has elected to limit the hours of substitute teachers in advance of the implementation next year of a federal “employer mandate,” which is part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The per-employee penalty for not providing insurance to workers who clock more than 30 hours a week is $2,000, he said.

“There is no exception for the public sector,” Rutledge said. “We have to abide by it.”

School districts are complying with the new law in a variety of ways, from paying a $2,000-per-employee penalty for substitute teachers to providing some substitute teachers with employee health insurance.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor said the problem with substitute teachers is a symptom of a broader problem with the local teaching pool.

“It’s not just substitutes,” he said. “We can’t find full-time, everyday, come-to-work teachers. There are schools where we can’t find kindergarten teachers. That’s unheard of.”

The board on Thursday also gave tentative approval to almost $1 million worth of renovations this summer at McKinley and Belaire high schools, as well as replacing roofs at two noninstructional buildings. The board also forwarded plans to spend $6.2 million converting temporary buildings to new classrooms at Riveroaks and Wedgewood elementary schools in 2016.

The board will take the construction projects up again when it meets Nov. 20.

The planned additions at Riveroaks and Wedgewood generated the most discussion.

Board member Barbara Freiberg questioned whether the schools need the new classrooms.

Earl Kern, program manager with CSRS/Tillage Construction, which oversees most school construction, said he won’t build anything more than necessary.

“We’re not going to build an eight-classroom addition when a school only needs four classrooms,” he said.

Board members Connie Bernard and Dyason questioned the need for the additions, as opposed to using the money for something more needed, such as a new school in southeast Baton Rouge to serve areas south of Interstate 10 that currently lack schools.