The contentious issue of imposing a cap on payouts for unused sick time for teachers will likely return to the Payson school board on March 28.
The proposal to limit the payout for teachers who leave after 10 years of service has become an intense rallying point for district teachers, who have endured two years of budget cuts and layoffs in mostly tense silence.
Fifth-grade teacher Wayne Gorry this week spoke for 50 teachers who jammed the board hearing room, with a compromise plan hammered out by many of the district’s teachers.
Gorry drew applause from the teachers sitting behind him when he suggested that teachers have been asked to bear the chief burden of the cuts in public education in recent years. The district has no teachers’ union and no representatives with a right to bargain with the administration, so they developed their counter-proposal informally.
Gorry contrasted the fate of the Wall Street bankers whose reckless but personally lucrative actions crashed the economy, and the teachers who have been facing cutbacks ever since.
The banker “Joseph P. Sherk, Wall Street CEO, very nearly drove the economy off a cliff, decimating public pension plans in the process. His pay, $5.9 million and his bonus $24.7 million,” said Gorry.
“The teacher is Judy Peaches, third-grade teacher, tasked with nurturing the intellects and talents of our best shot at keeping America great. Her pay, $34,782 and her bonus: hugs.”
The teachers have greeted a blizzard of changes in the past three years in relatively stoic silence. That includes last year’s layoffs, a new round of proposed layoffs this year, elimination of their dental benefits, a proposed increase in class sizes, the closure of Frontier Elementary School, the Legislature’s effective elimination of tenure and seniority protections, a three-year pay freeze, reductions or elimination of stipends to compensate teachers for time spent coaching or supervising other after-school activities and a proposed legislative phase-out of incentives for extra training that could result in an effective 20 percent pay cut for many teachers.
The average salary for Payson teachers stands at about $46,000, just slightly below the state average and about 8 percent below the national average. Gorry said teachers have kept silent as the cuts have accumulated, understanding the financial problem the district faces. But the sick leave cap added insult to injury.
“And now this revision of a policy that has provided us with a modest reimbursement for sick leave we have accrued over many years of service to this district is being considered as another sacrifice that teachers should make.”
Last year’s $132,000 payout for unused sick time and vacation time stimulated the school board’s interest in capping payments. Last year, the district lost 17 employees as a result of 11 layoffs and six retirements.
That $132,000 included $50,000 paid out to retiring administrators for unused vacation time. Administrators get 30 days of paid vacation time each year since they work a 12-month year, but teachers get no vacation time because they work a nine-month contract.
In a normal year, payouts for teachers’ unused sick time averages more like $10,000 to $15,000 districtwide. Last year, the sick leave payouts totaled $87,000.
Teachers accumulate 10-12 days of sick time and personal leave time annually. If they leave after 10 years, they get paid for unused days at half the substitute teacher rate. After 20 years, they get paid for those days at the full substitute rate.
Last year, during the layoffs, some laid-off administrators got a lump sum payment of up to $18,000, which covered both unused vacation and sick time accumulated in the course of 25 years of near-perfect attendance.
The payout system was devised to get teachers to use as few sick days as possible, since the district must hire an $80-a-day substitute and students generally fall behind the lesson plan whenever a substitute takes over.
Most teachers have very low absentee rates.
Currently, two of the district’s 500 employees have accumulated more than 200 days of sick leave and two others have accumulated between 150 and 199 days. Another 22 employees have accumulated between 100 and 149 days and 115 have accumulated less than 100 days. Finally, 141 employees have been with the district less than 10 years and so would not get a payout if they quit or got laid off.
Superintendent Casey O’Brien told the board on Monday that if everyone got fired or quit this year, the district would owe payouts totaling $425,000, which would include $92,000 for unused vacation days for administrators and classified staff and $330,000 to cover unused sick days.
Board member Rory Huff repeatedly cited the $425,000 figure, calling it an unfunded liability the district could not afford.
Gorry insisted those payouts will be spread out over 20 or 30 years and so really represent a budget impact of $11,000 to $16,000 annually. Gorry said that when a teacher retires, the lower pay of the entry-level starting teacher generally makes up for the budgetary cost of the payout in a single year.
“If you look back at what was paid out annually in the past for sick leave reimbursement, you will find that in most years not even one additional teacher could be hired from the savings of completely removing this benefit.”
Several board members hastened to assure the teachers that they weren’t proposing to remove the benefit for teachers who had already earned a payout under the existing system.
However, Huff several times said he thought that for teachers who have not yet earned a certain number of days, the district should cap future payments at no more than 40 days. That would represent a maximum payout for teachers of $3,200. The board has not discussed any restrictions on vacation day payouts for administrators and classified staff.
Gorry countered with a proposal supported by all of the teachers who attended.
Under the teachers’ proposal, the four employees who have already accumulated more than 150 days would still get their full payout. The rest of the teachers currently working could get a payout for up to 150 days. Any new teachers hired could get a payout for no more than 100 days.
Under that system, the payouts would range from perhaps $16,000 for 200 days of unused sick pay for the four teachers grandfathered in, and about $8,000 for the new hires who could collect on up to 100 days after 20 years of service.
The teachers’ proposal would still enable teachers to accumulate extra days above that cap to use in case they had an extended illness — they just wouldn’t get paid for those days when they retire. In addition, Gorry suggested that once teachers hit the cap, the district should pay them at the substitute teacher rate for half of the unused days at the end of each school year.
Gorry said the district reaps considerable advantages from the current system, both in the low teacher absentee rate and in the ability to recruit new teachers.
“Simply put: our current policy provides a financial incentive not to use sick leave. During the flu epidemic that ravaged our schools this month, you could have come to any school and find teachers working with head-aches, sniffles and coughs. If you don’t pay this benefit to classroom teachers, you will pay it to substitute teachers at a far greater cost to student achievement.”
In the end, Gorry returned to his comparison of the still huge payments to the bankers compared to the rain of cuts facing teachers.
“It is clear to all of us now that Joseph Sherk is not going to help us through this financial crisis. Judy Peaches has already done more than her fair share and will, no doubt, be asked to do more. Maybe part of the reason Judy is at work every day is those hugs she receives as her bonus, but that sick leave reimbursement policy also provides a positive incentive to keep her in the classroom as much as possible.”