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.