The Payson School Board this week expressed strong support for a cap on payouts for unused sick time for veteran retiring teachers, but then put off a decision to get more feedback from employees.
Fifth-grade teacher Trevor Creighton appealed to the board to stop whittling away at the district’s 147 teachers, who face layoffs, cuts in compensation from the state and growing class sizes.
“I understand we’re in a budget crunch,” said Creighton during the public comment portion of Monday’s board meeting — one of the few times a teacher has addressed the board publicly on the topic of the budget crisis. “Teachers are not apathetic. But there’s a feeling that there’s a hammer about to drop — so we’re afraid. But I’m here anyway.”
Specifically, he addressed a proposal to cap or eliminate a payout for unused sick days for teachers or administrators with at least 10 years service. District policy currently gives teachers and administrators between seven and nine sick days annually plus three “personal” days. Unused sick days accumulate. After 10 years, the district will pay a teacher at the daily substitute teacher rate for any unused sick days. Teachers get a payout that amounts to two-thirds of the unused time if they leave after 10 to 15 years and 100 percent if they leave after 20 years.
Last year, the district laid off many senior teachers and administrators with decades of nearly perfect attendance. The payouts for unused sick leave therefore last year totaled $131,000 — compared to less than $15,000 in a normal year.
The discussion takes place this year in the shadow of another round of budget cuts and teacher layoffs. The administration has proposed closing a $900,000 projected deficit in the upcoming fiscal year by closing Frontier Elementary School and laying off more than 20 workers — 11 of them teachers. That would result in a significant increase in class sizes, especially at the elementary school level.
Creighton said the district should treat teachers with more respect and recognize the value to the students that stems from how often teachers come to work even when they’re sick or injured, so their students won’t lose out.
“When I’m sick, I always have to pick up the pieces (from the substitute) the next day, even when I leave a three-page lesson plan. So we go to school sick, we go to school injured. Last year was a unique situation.”
He said if the district does cap sick pay payouts at retirement, it should pay teachers for unused sick days above the cap at the end of each year. “Treat us like professionals,” he pleaded.
Board member Kim Pound said he thought teachers should accumulate an unlimited number of unused days to cover possible major illnesses — but shouldn’t expect payouts when they retired or get laid off.
“My problem is the payout at the end because I don’t believe we can afford it,” said Pound.
Board member Matt Van Camp, a Payson police officer who therefore becomes eligible for a lifetime pension after 20 years on the job, said, “sick leave is a great benefit to employees. I want to keep that. I want you to earn all the sick leave possible. But we have to find a way to limit this payout at the end.”
Board member Rory Huff said he knew that you could “tear off a teacher’s leg” and she’d still show up to work, also insisted the district cannot afford to continue paying longtime employees for unused sick time.
“The $130,000 we paid out last year came out of operations and maintenance. This board has been very protective of teachers,” he insisted.
“But these are tough times. A lot of people in this town don’t have jobs. Teachers at least have jobs.” At a later point in the discussion, he said the ability of teachers to donate sick days to help people facing long illnesses as well as to accumulate sick days for a payout after decades of service “is like a Ponzi scheme.”
The district’s chief financial officer said that the eligible employees have accumulated $422,000 in unused sick time, which is what the district would owe if everyone retired today and put in for their unused sick leave.
However, the district doesn’t have to maintain a reserve fund to cover that amount. Generally, only the highest paid, most senior teachers qualify for a sizeable payout. But the district generally replaces such a retiring teacher with a freshly minted teacher making a much lower salary. As a result, the salary savings usually more than covers the cost of the payout, said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
Board member Barbara Underwood said that teachers did deserve some reward for decades of near-perfect attendance. “There should be some reward at the end. I do think we want to thank them for being in the classroom.”
“But we’re already paying them to be in the classroom,” said Huff.
“If they’re here for the sick leave, that’s the wrong reason,” interjected Pound, drawing a groan from the listening teachers and parents in the audience.
“We shouldn’t reward people for coming to work,” said Huff.
“I’ve talked to a lot of business people this week who don’t get any sick leave,” said Van Camp.
O’Brien said he was worried about the impact a big change in the sick leave policy would have on morale, given the impact of layoffs, larger classes and a state proposal to phase out merit pay for extra training that will eventually cost most of the district’s teachers $2,000 to $4,000 annually, which could amount to a 10 percent pay cut for many. Teachers may have to start to absorb that reduction even as they cope with a 5 percent to 30 percent rise in class sizes.
O’Brien suggested all these impacts on teachers could add up.
“I’m an employee that’s been here for 15 years, then this is going to feel like we’re taking something away,” said O’Brien.
“On the other hand, if we don’t do this — we might find ourselves unable to fund some teachers’ jobs.”
Ultimately, the board opted to schedule a future open meeting with employees to talk through the proposed changes in the sick leave payout policy.
“I don’t think they understand what we’re doing,” said Van Camp, noting that no one wanted to limit the accumulation of sick time — just to cap or eliminate the cash payment for that unused time when a teacher left.
“That’s partially their fault,” said Huff. “They don’t attend the meetings and listen to the teacher rumor mill and it’s all messed up. We’re not going to drop the hammer on a teacher who comes to speak to us,” he added, in reference to Creighton’s lonely dissent at the start of the meeting.