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Unused sick day payouts top $650k in Schenectady schools

Unused sick day payouts top $650k in Schenectady schools

Unused time converts to retirement benefit
Unused sick day payouts top $650k in Schenectady schools
Superintendent Larry Spring welcomes new teachers Ashley Ozemba, center, and Christina Golson in 2016.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY -- The Schenectady City School District is on track to pay out over $650,000 to retiring teachers and staff this past year for their unused sick days – a 14 percent increase over last year.

The payouts are part of a contractual benefit that allows Schenectady teachers to accumulate up to 400 unused sick days they can cash out upon retirement with the district. With 23 sick days guaranteed in their first year and 18 sick days each subsequent year, the payouts can top $40,000 for some retirees.

The combined payouts have increased each of the past three years, rising from over $480,000 for the 2015-2016 school year to over $657,000 for the 2018-2019 school year. School Superintendent Larry Spring on Tuesday said he would expect – even hope – that the retirement payouts would continue to increase as the district emphasizes the importance of teacher attendance and retains more teachers for longer periods of time.

“It's a personal sick day benefit, it's a family sick day benefit, and if it's unused then it's an end-of-career financial benefit,” Spring said. “What that incents is not just not using sick days, it also incents longevity in the district ... you get that benefit if you stay and retire and come to work every day.”

The school board Wednesday night will be asked to approve the latest batch of sick day payouts: over $439,000 in combined payouts to 17 teachers who just reached their retirement. The board had signed off on eight other sick day payouts since last summer. This year's retirement payouts averaged just over $26,000 per retiree, ranging from a little over $6,000 to more than $45,000 for one retiree.

The school board typically approves a batch of the payouts in July, covering the retirees who had just finished out their final year. Throughout the school year, the board also periodically approves payouts for staff retiring in the middle of the year.

Spring said in the long run improved teacher attendance would mean higher retirement payouts but would also result in savings from using fewer classroom substitute teachers. While the teacher payouts come at their final daily rate – which will be higher than sub rates – the payouts are for a percentage of their pay upon retirement. But for now the district is still looking to find enough substitutes to fill vacancies on any given day, so savings on sub costs may still be at least a few years off.

The sick day retirement benefit has been locked into the district's teachers contract for some years, predating most, if not all, administrators and school board members. Spring said he didn't know how previous contract negotiators landed on 23 sick days in year one and 18 days each year after but acknowledged that the benefit cannot be curtailed without getting the teachers union to agree to do some – something they would unlikely accept without making gains on a separate issue.

Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady teachers union, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He suggested he would like to see sick days accumulate more slowly but wouldn't go as far as calling it a “priority” for fewer negotiations.

“Every time [the teachers contract is up for negotiation], I would like to address that,” Spring said of the number of sick days teachers get each year.

But if that number is ever to come down, the school district would have to negotiate with the teachers union over it. Under New York state labor law, a teachers contract – and all of its benefits – are locked in until a new agreement is reached.

School board President John Foley also pointed to the district's increasing emphasis on teacher attendance, a data point the board reviews on a regular basis, and said the large payouts only come for teachers who remain in their class and in the district. Foley said the board in recent years has constrained annual salary increases for teachers, administrators and other staff to around 2 percent, increases that Foley said are sustainable over time.

“The board focuses quarterly on attendance because we want people to know that attendance is important,” he said.

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