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Big payouts for school superintendents get Florida taxpayers' attention

The Broward County school district paid its former superintendent $241,149 for unused sick leave and vacation time this year. Palm Beach County paid its former schools chief $158,223. Now, Pinellas County is on the hook for $199,998.

Each time, taxpayers were ticked.

And there are growing signs that state education leaders, lawmakers and others want to take a closer look at the policies that led to those payouts.

"What caught my attention was the amount of money," said Roberto Martinez, a state Board of Education member from Miami, referring to the sum that the Pinellas district is set to pay fired superintendent Julie Janssen. "It's not like we're talking about an industry that's flush with cash."

Martinez said he'll be raising the issue with the board later this month.

But it's not just the big chunks doled out to a few superintendents that may end up being a target. Similar policies that benefit tens of thousands of teachers and other school employees could end up in the crossfire.

In Pinellas, the cost for unpaid sick leave last year topped $10 million for all retiring employees. In Miami-Dade, it was $20 million.

State Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a member of the House education committee, said he did not believe the Legislature should meddle with school board authority in these matters, but wouldn't be surprised if lawmakers considered the issue next year.

"As budgets are getting tighter, these kinds of compensation packages that were appropriate a few years ago are probably not appropriate today," Brandes said.

At issue are laws and district policies that allow school workers to rack up unlimited amounts of unpaid sick leave, then to get paid for it when they retire.

By state law, compensation for unused vacation time is capped at 60 days. But payouts for unused sick leave can go much higher.

It's not clear how many districts have caps on the number of days that can be compensated, and how many, like Pinellas and Hillsborough County, do not. It's also not clear how much is being shelled out across the state.

What is known is that those benefits are more generous than what many workers in the private sector get. And they've persisted despite deep cuts in Florida education spending.

Supporters say there's a good reason.

Teachers "take a lower pay in many ways than the private sector does," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando County teachers union. "The tradeoff is these benefits."

Vitalo also said students benefit when teachers are in the classroom more — and such benefits help maximize that.

Given their higher salaries, it's district top brass who occasionally spawn rage for payouts that many find gaudy. The most recent example: Janssen.

The district is due to pay Janssen $199,998 for 168 days of unused sick leave and 60 days of unused vacation time. About half of those unused sick days were amassed before 2004, long before Janssen became superintendent. But under state law and according to her contract, she'll be compensated for those pre-2004 days at her final pay rate, when she made $203,000 a year.

A previous wave of anger about such arrangements led to legislative changes, rolled out in 2004, that have begun to curb payouts for administrators. But some say the recent examples in Pinellas, Palm Beach and Broward should prompt lawmakers to consider additional limits now.

"It clearly needs to come back (for review) in this time of crisis," said Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black.

Some, though, say similar benefits to teachers should be on the table, too.

The payouts might not be as big —in Miami-Dade, 3,100 employees last year received an average of $6,391 each — but they add up, said Chuck Stanmore, owner of Creative Arts Unlimited, a Pinellas Park company with 23 employees.

He noted that school employees get more sick days than many private-sector workers. And amassing unused leave is in stark contrast with the use-it-or-lose-it policies of many businesses.

"It's excessive," Stanmore said. "Public employees are getting a benefit that is more attractive … than it should be."

State law allows teachers to earn one day of sick leave per month, and to accumulate as much as they can. Districts set policies on compensation for that unused leave when teachers retire, subject to some constraints in state law.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said after a series of angst-inducing headlines a decade ago, the association recommended that districts revisit their sick-leave policies.

"We felt like if we didn't do it ourselves, it would be mandated," he said.

The result: Most school districts, he said, set caps on the amount of unused leave that can be compensated, usually 60 or 90 days. Other education observers said they thought the caps were rare, but a more specific, district-by-district breakdown was not immediately available.

Blanton said he doesn't think state officials need to take a closer look, couching it as a local control issue. But he also said he wouldn't be surprised if they did.

Prompted by big payouts to public officials in South Florida, including several in city and county governments, the Miami-Dade School Board directed superintendent Alberto Carvalho last month to review severance pay for all district employees. A report is due next month.

Martinez, the state Board of Education member, said he has asked the board to discuss the issue at its Sept. 20 meeting.

Martinez also said he wanted more information and did not want to jump to conclusions. But in light of education funding woes, he said the board would be remiss if it did not ask questions.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who led the drive last spring for a new law that curtailed golden parachutes for government employees, also chose his words carefully.

He said there may be a need — "and I emphasize the word 'may' " — for the Legislature to review the issue of accumulated sick days and vacation time. But he also said district officials shouldn't need a prompt to do that on their own.

"If you're a school board (member) that comes to Tallahassee and cries for more education funding," he said, "then you need to be very careful" with the severance packages offered to superintendents and the benefits offered to other employees.

Miami Herald staff writer Laura Isensee contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Top job payouts

Here's what some Florida school districts are paying departing superintendents:

Palm Beach County: Outgoing superintendent Art Johnson, who ran the schools for a decade, in March received $114,992.06 for unused sick leave and $43,230.93 in accumulated vacation pay.

Broward County: Former superintendent Jim Notter left June 30 with a check for $241,149 in unused vacation and sick time accrued over a 25-year career with Broward schools.

Pinellas County: The district is due to pay fired superintendent Julie Janssen $199,998 for 168 days of unused sick leave and 60 days of unused vacation time. Janssen worked for the district for 30 years.

Big payouts for school superintendents get Florida taxpayers' attention 09/11/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 11, 2011 9:58pm]
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