In another era, it may have been defensible to hand teachers, principals and other school district employees a big check for unused sick leave on their way out the door. But in these economic times, such a generous policy that is so out of line with the private sector is no longer affordable for taxpayers. Pinellas and other school districts should revise their policies and set reasonable limits, or state legislators are going to do it for them and the outcome may be more punitive.
As Pinellas school officials have been slashing spending by tens of millions of dollars because of declining tax revenues, they have been paying out millions for unused sick leave. The costs add up to $44.9 million in the past five years, including $10.1 million last year, Times staff writer Ron Matus reported. While the average payout for unused sick leave was $10,429, there were 19 district employees who were paid $100,000 or more in used sick leave and vacation time. Pinellas cannot justify such unlimited payouts for sick leave when it is cutting everywhere else, and neither can Hillsborough, Pasco or other school districts around the state.
There is a rationale for allowing school district employees to be paid for some unused sick leave when they leave. Salaries often do not match what could be earned in the private sector, and good benefits are one way to offset the difference. Teachers usually have 10-month contracts and do not get vacation leave, and payments for unused sick leave can be an incentive to avoid taking time off during the school year. The more often teachers show up for work, the fewer substitutes the districts have to hire to cover their classrooms. So there is a balance to be struck.
But the economic reality is that it is no longer defensible to keep making unlimited payments for unused sick days. Pinellas interim superintendent John Stewart has the right approach. He helped implement a cap on such payouts as superintendent in Polk County, which now pays employees for up to half of their unused sick days. Stewart plans to pursue a limit in Pinellas in bargaining negotiations with the unions, and that is a wise step that other districts should take as well.
There is a way to strike a reasonable compromise that recognizes the importance of reducing school district costs while still providing some reasonable payments for unused sick days. The status quo is not sustainable, and the sooner Pinellas and other school districts acknowledge that and revise their policies, the better.