Spinning Sick Days into Gold

June 30, 1994

When people retire, many of them receive a gold watch. If you retire from the Carroll County public school system, you can count on more than that: A hefty cash payment consisting of accumulated unused sick leave, accrued at your highest rate of pay.

When R. Edward Shilling retires today as Carroll's superintendent after 30 total years in the county system, he will receive $94,401 -- $63,066 for 239.5 unused sick days and $31,335 for 59.5 unused vacation days. Mr. Shilling may feel he's earned that payout and technically he's right.

But he shouldn't be surprised if his windfall comes at a cost: Instead of being remembered for the good he did for the system, he goes out looking like someone taking advantage of it, like so many corporate executives floating away on golden parachutes. Reasonable people wouldn't begrudge the cashing in of

vacation days earned, but when the system's top executive collects for three decades of sick leave at a superintendent's rate of pay, the message to all employees is: Grab what you can get. Last year, another top system administrator pocketed a $45,000 cash payment when he left.

Examples like these demonstrate that the Board of Education must revamp its compensation system. Sick pay is a benefit to cover employees when they're sick; it shouldn't be a get-rich scheme. Since most employers use the number of days worked to determine the amount of sick leave, healthy workers with long tenures can accumulate a large number of days.

There should be a cap on these payments. The only limit now is that these retiring employees collect no more than half of all unpaid sick leave. Also, employees with decades of longevity are getting reimbursed at their highest rate of pay rather than at the salary they were making when they earned the sick time. Last year, retiring employees collected $585,369 for their unused sick days. This year, the amount will total about $500,000.

These sums could pay for more teachers, more supplies or to fix leaking school roofs. The money should be used to benefit the children in the system, rather than as rewards to employees who are leaving the system. Such windfalls to retiring employees fuel cynicism about the school system and government and, in the long run, make it harder to secure the funding a good school system needs.

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