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EDITORIAL: A sick deal for Schenectady taxpayers

EDITORIAL: A sick deal for Schenectady taxpayers

Teachers cash in on unused sick days at expense of school programs, taxpayers

Fans of the New York Mets each year on July 1 mark a rather inauspicious anniversary.

It’s called “Bobby Bonilla Day.”

It’s the day of the year when the Mets write a check for $1.19 million to former player Bobby Bonilla as part of a deferred payment deal worked out at the turn of the century. Bonilla will be getting that same check each July 1 through the year 2035, even though he hasn’t played a game for the Mets in 20 years.

That’s the kind of deal that happens when someone gets snookered by a savvy negotiator.

Taxpayers in the Schenectady school district have their own version of Bobby Bonilla Day in July. It happens right after the school year, when we report on the district’s annual payouts to retired school teachers for unused sick days.

This year, taxpayers will be on the hook for about $657,000 as part of a deal reached years ago between the Schenectady school board and the teachers union, in which the board agreed to allow teachers to accumulate up to 400 unused sick days over their careers and to cash them in for money when they retire. 

For some teachers, the payout could be more than $40,000. It’s not Bobby Bonilla money. But to cash-strapped local taxpayers, that’s a pretty big check to write to someone for simply going to work when they’re supposed to and not abusing their sick time. 

District officials spin the deferred payment as a positive, saying it serves as an incentive to get teachers to show up for work every day instead of calling in sick, thereby providing students with consistency, and saving the taxpayers the cost of substitute teachers.

But let’s break this argument down.

One conclusion someone can draw from it is that teachers are choosing to come into work, even when they’re sick, so they can store up that sick day for retirement. Another is that if they couldn’t accumulate their sick days, they’d be calling in sick when they weren’t really sick, just to take advantage of the benefit. The other conclusion is that teachers, more than other public and private employees, need an extra incentive to show up for work beyond just their taxpayer-funded salaries and benefits. So the school district gives them fake sick days as a retirement bonus.

And of course, it works.

If you were promised a $40,000 check on retirement day in addition to your other negotiated benefits, wouldn’t you be more inclined to drag your butt to work each day, even when you didn’t feel like going?

For a group that only works about 200 days a year compared to the 260 worked by those in most other professions — and considering that most non-school employees don’t get nearly the same number of sick days each year (about 6 or 7 a year on average), nor can they carry over so many unused sick days (if any) for many years — this is a real sweetheart deal for teachers.

In considering the benefits of enticing teachers to show up for work every day, consider how that $657,000 could otherwise be spent. It’s money the district can’t use for educational and extra-curricular programming, capital improvements, teachers, counselors or other needs. It’s money that goes for nothing other than to pad the retirement of teachers who are no longer teaching.

If you’re ever wondering why the cost-per-student in New York is the highest in the nation, or if you wonder why your property taxes are so consistently high, the unusually generous benefits afforded to some public employees by irresponsible government boards is one of the reasons.

Since the teachers union is unlikely to give back this benefit during future contract negotiations, at least without trading it for one of equal value, Schenectady taxpayers will be stuck making similar payments for many years to come, unless they start going to school board meetings and raising a fuss.

So Schenectady property owners share the same fate as Mets fans:  They’ve both been victimized by irresponsible contracts.

The difference is that Mets fans don’t write the check for their bad deal.

Schenectady taxpayers do.

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