Fired Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen hit a nerve last month when it turned out the district owed her $199,998 for unused sick leave and vacation time.
But she's not the only district employee who has walked away with a hefty payout.
In the past five years, the district paid $50,000 or more in unused sick leave and vacation time to each of 187 employees, according to district data requested by the St. Petersburg Times. Of those, 19 were paid $100,000 or more.
The total for all employees over that period: $50.4 million.
Many private-sector workers do not get similar benefits, which are common in school districts and local governments around the state. Given that disparity and historic cuts in state education spending, lawmakers and other important players are beginning to take a closer look.
"It's a significant expense to taxpayers," said Robert Weissert, vice president of research at Florida TaxWatch, which has pushed to limit or eliminate similar benefits for state workers. "It's certainly worthy of discussion among elected officials as they consider what to choose to spend scarce resources on."
In Pinellas, interim superintendent John Stewart told board members at a workshop Tuesday that the district should consider capping payouts for unused sick leave. He said the district would begin to pursue that possibility in bargaining sessions with employee unions.
Board members raised no objections.
"When you total it up, $8 million or $9 million (a year) is a staggering amount," he said in an interview. "The reality of life is, we are in the toughest economic times we've been in since the Great Depression. We have to be super sensitive to those economic times."
The union response: With administrators, go for it. But don't subject teachers to the same limits.
"I don't necessarily agree that management should have everything that teachers have," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union.
Proponents of the policy say it also reduces costs for substitutes by giving teachers an incentive not to use all their sick days.
It remains to be seen whether board members will support a change. Member Lew Williams, a retired district administrator, didn't want to comment at length until details emerged. But he conceded he had concerns.
"People are making (retirement) decisions based on what we have in place," he said.
State law and district policies allow school employees to rack up unlimited amounts of unused sick leave, then get paid for it when they leave the system. By law, compensation for unused vacation time is capped at 60 days. Payouts for sick leave can go much higher.
State law allows teachers, who generally work 10-month contracts, to earn one day of sick leave per month. They do not get vacation leave. In Pinellas, administrators on 12-month contracts receive 12 sick days and 12 to 18 vacation days per year.
In the past five years, Pinellas has paid $44.9 million for unused sick leave, including $10.1 million last year.
Most payouts are modest.
Last year, 1,187 employees were paid for unused sick or vacation leave or both. The average payout for sick leave: $10,429. The average for vacation time: $4,351.
Most of the six-figure awards went to principals, assistant principals and district-level administrators. Janssen's haul was the biggest in recent years, but Dennis Duda, who retired last year as principal of Lakewood High, wasn't far behind with $172,401.
At least 95 employees earning $50,000 or more for sick leave payouts in the past five years were classroom teachers, media specialists or guidance counselors. Tops among that group: A librarian who received $104,337, followed by a driver's ed teacher who got $100,787.
Much of the payout money is subject to taxes.
But the totals are potentially large. Last year, the cost for leave payouts topped $20 million in Miami-Dade, $13 million in Hillsborough and $6 million in Pasco.
Stewart, the interim superintendent, said he successfully pushed to cap payouts for unused sick leave for all employees when he was the schools chief in Polk County 20 years ago.
The change was phased in and tempered the size of payouts over time. Now employees are paid for up to half of their unused sick days. Last year, Polk, which is slightly smaller than Pinellas in size, paid out $3.3 million in unused sick leave.
"It had stiff opposition (at the time)," Stewart said. But "because we were able to do this in the early '90s, it's not an issue there any more."
Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.