Budget belt-tightening

Our view: Baltimore can't afford to keep paying school and municipal workers for unused sick days

March 19, 2012

The millions of dollars of unused vacation and sick leave pay Baltimore shells out annually to its teachers are a sign the school system is still struggling to control its costs. At a time when budgets are tight and benefits have been cut by private employers and many local governments, Baltimore's policy is clearly unsustainable. School officials need to face up to the problem squarely and devise a plan to bring the cost of such perks more into line with current fiscal realities.

Over the last five years, the school system has paid employees about $65 million in unused leave, including $22 million to cover annual cash outs of unused sick leave. Last year the schools paid $4.6 million in unused sick leave to 626 employees, and more than 1,000 workers left the district with accrued personal, sick leave and vacation time benefits totaling nearly $10 million.

Baltimore is virtually unique among school districts in the state in paying school teachers for their unused sick days. Some Baltimore municipal employees also get sick leave payouts, but the city has been trying to eliminate the practice. The school system, though, continues to defend it.

Tisha Edwards, the chief of staff for the city school system, says paying teachers who resign or retire for accrued sick days is reasonable because it encourages employees to show up for work and provides positive rewards for employees who do their jobs conscientiously. She says the policy also offers an incentive for teachers to stay in the system rather than migrate to suburban districts, where salaries are higher.

Teacher sick leave policy is a tricky balance. Learning plummets, and, to some extent, expenditures go up, when schools have to hire substitute teachers. On the other hand, teachers who show up for work despite being sick are unlikely to be particularly effective, and they risk spreading illness to their students and other teachers, potentially compounding the problem. The trick would be to find a policy that encourages teachers to use sick days when they really need to but not to use them lightly. The current policy achieves the latter but not the former, and it does so in a particularly expensive way.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso has focused his cost cutting measures on reducing the systems' roster of full-time personnel, rather than on cutting back on benefits. He says the system has saved $164 million in wages and benefits under his tenure, with much of the money devoted to providing more resources to individual schools.

At some point, however, the school system is going to have to look beyond staff cuts in order to control its costs. Earlier this month, The Sun's Erica Green reported that since 2009, the school system has spent some $14 million in overtime pay for employees, most off which went to members of the school police and to temporary employees who were hired to fill gaps left when Mr. Alonso began shrinking his central office staff. After dipping in 2008, the annual amount paid out for school overtime costs has been rising every year since.

Clearly, staff cuts alone are not the only cost-cutting policy the school system needs to consider. It will take a combination of staff cuts and benefit reform to keep the schools solvent.

In recent years, private-sector employers have phased out perks such as accrued sick leave in order to save jobs and manage budgets. But increasingly, so have local governments. The Chicago public school system, for example, saved millions of dollars a year by eliminating sick leave payouts for some employees, and other school districts have set limits on the number of paid sick days employees can accumulate.

Baltimore's school system needs to seriously examine how it can get better control over its sick leave costs in a way that is fair to new teachers as well as to classroom veterans who were promised benefits decades ago that the city simply can no longer afford. This is a vastly different economic environment than the one that existed when such policies were first formulated, and the way the city handles sick leave and other benefits must reflect that reality.

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