The Baltimore school system has paid its employees about $65 million for unused leave over the past five years, a rare perk that many employers have abandoned and that has come under fire as school districts have experienced shrinking budgets.
Since 2007, the city school system has spent about $22 million on annual cash-outs of unused sick leave accrued by current employees.
In the same period, some of the system's highest-paid and longest-tenured employees have cashed out nearly $43 million in accrued vacation, sick and personal leave when they have resigned or retired, according to an analysis of city schools salary and benefits data provided to The Baltimore Sun.
Such generous sick leave pay policies are rare among school districts and local governments in Maryland, and such perks have been phased out in the private and public sectors in recent years as organizations have cut back on personnel benefits to save jobs and manage budgets. The city's policy of paying those who retire or resign for unused vacation, which is a more common practice, also is among the most liberal.
"We know it's unique, and we certainly understand why questions will be raised," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the city school system. "But we do think it has a place in the school system, and we don't think it reflects an unreasonable expense."
The system's cash-outs for unused sick days are paid to current employees at the end of the calendar year. The highest amount paid since 2008 was about $3,300.
But for employees whose service spans decades and who accrue several months of unused vacation, personal and sick days, the payout can reach into six figures when they retire or resign. Data show that since 2008, the highest payout for accrued leave was $215,300 to an employee who had been in the district for 37 years.
Edwards said that while the long-standing benefits are costly, they are a worthwhile expense for "rewarding positive behavior" in a system that continues to struggle with attractive compensation packages, harsh working conditions and attendance.
The policies date to the 1970s when the system was run by the City of Baltimore — which continues to pay for sick leave conversion but has sought to eliminate it.
The city has about 2,000 more employees than the school system and spent $1.2 million in sick leave conversion last year, compared with $4.6 million paid by the school system.
The sick leave conversion benefit has survived the school system's cost-saving measures, which have mostly been directed at reducing full-time personnel. Schools CEO Andrés Alonso said the system has saved $167 million in wages and fringe benefits under his tenure by eliminating positions.
But education researchers say that such leave policies are increasingly coming under fire in public school systems across the nation and that Baltimore should consider re-evaluating them in the current economic climate.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a Chicago newspaper that "people should take a hard look at whether or not that policy makes sense … in these tight budget times," after it was discovered that he had received a $50,000 payout for unused vacation when he left the superintendent's job in Chicago.
The Chicago public school system has moved to save millions of dollars by eliminating sick leave payouts for employees who are not members of a union, and its superintendent has vowed to discuss it during the next round of union negotiations.
Reagan Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research organization, has studied leave policies in Baltimore and other urban school districts. He said that while those perks once had a place in school systems, "it's not some source of entitlement."
However, research shows that teacher and principal absences have a negative impact on student achievement and the climate of schools, Miller said.
School officials also said they would incur costs without the leave benefits, particularly for teachers, because the system would have to hire substitutes. Last year, the system spent $5.6 million on 761 emergency substitutes.
Miller called absences "the bane of [educators'] existence," and added that school districts such as Baltimore's might want to hold on to the incentives "because all hands on deck is so important to the success of their reforms."
"But if there is a better way to use that money to ensure that you have a high-quality force that shows up to work, then that should be discussed," he said.
"Wow," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the panel's Education and Youth Committee, when she heard the amount being paid.
But she said that while she would encourage the school system to examine the fiscal impact, she does not encourage it to join the national trend of reneging on union contracts. She said she's been pleased to see the system crack down in other areas to save money.
"I think we have to take a very hard look at that, because it's a different economic time, but for people who worked for that promise, we should uphold it," Clarke said. "I'm a fiscal conservative, but you don't balance your budget on the backs of people who have worked for you in good faith."
The system's annual payouts for sick leave and accrued leave increased sharply after Alonso arrived in 2007 and have risen steadily each year since.
Last year, the system paid $4.6 million for unused sick time to 626 employees; and 1,118 employees left the district with $9.8 million in accrued personal and sick leave and vacation time. The accrued payouts for last year included a buyout of more than 300 of the city's longest-tenured educators, but cost only $1 million more than the year before.
City school officials said the increases reflect a "cultural shift" under the leadership of Alonso, whose administration has pushed productivity and results.
Officials said the annual sick leave numbers show that more employees are using their sick leave judiciously and are showing up to work more often.
The accrued leave payouts, they said, reflect that employees who were not meeting the challenge of the schools chief's reforms — or were near retirement and chose not to be a part of them — are leaving, as is the case with many of the system's veteran principals.
The accrued leave data show that those who retired or resigned averaged 25 years of service, a number that has remained consistent.
The highest payout last year to a principal was $122,000, to a school leader who retired from the system after 38 years.
"You have to pay a price for something so aggressive," Alonso said.
The city pays the perks from its payroll, while most districts roll the costs into retirement benefits that are paid by the state.
Just one neighboring school jurisdiction, Anne Arundel County, pays out sick leave on an annual basis, but only for employees who have 15 years of service, and the payouts are under $1,000. Other accrued benefits are rolled into a special pay plan.
Baltimore also has much higher caps on how much vacation time employees can cash out when they leave the district.
For example, in the Howard and Baltimore County school districts, which do not pay sick leave conversion, the maximum amounts of vacation a retiree can cash out are 40 days and 45 days, respectively.
In Baltimore, the least amount of time an employee can cash out is 72 days, as is the case for 12-month employees in the Baltimore Teachers Union.
The group that can cash out the most time is unaffiliated employees, such as managers in the central office, who can accrue up to 192 days. Last year, the highest payout to an unaffiliated administrator was $177,952.
Edwards said the district's benefits could come up in future negotiations with the unions, but in the last round, the priority was to negotiate pay-for-performance contracts for most of the school system's workforce.
The president of the city principals union, whose members have been among the largest beneficiaries of the policy, said it is unlikely that the administrators would give up the perk.
"We will never give up sick leave conversion," Gittings said. "Our administrators are expected to be on every day, are paid less than in other [districts], and that would mean that they'd retire and give back two-thirds of their salary."
One group of school employees has already faced losing the perk. The city initially eliminated sick leave conversion from its fiscal year 2011 budget, but instead negotiated furlough days with its bargaining units.
The city's move would have affected about 1,400 school employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union represents "essential employees," such as food service, custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers and hall monitors.
Glen Middleton, chief of local chapters of AFSCME, said his workers wanted to keep sick leave conversion, a small check that comes in December, even if it meant an unpaid day off.
"They are expected to be at work every day, even when no one else is, and they don't mind that," Middleton said. "They want to be there for the students, and they just get a little extra at Christmastime."
2011 accrued leave payouts over $100,000
•Reginald Robinson, special education administration, 41 years: $177,952
•Patricia Shaw, principal, 38 years: $122,904
•Herbert Miller, principal, 36 years: $107,603
•Stephen Colbert, principal, 32 years: $107,554
•Michael Cheatham, principal, 40 years: $106,732
•Leslie Shepard, principal, 33 years: $105,877
•Michael Pitroff, chief technology officer, nine years: $104,094
•Hattie Singleton Robinson, academic dean, 39 years: $102, 573
•Nilah Briscoe, functional analyst, 33 years: $100,300
•Malcum Dates, director, 41 years: $100,048
Source: Baltimore school system