Freed from Union Contracts, School Districts Able to Shed Costly Sick Leave Conversion Programs

MacIver News Service | December 8, 2011

While many school districts across Wisconsin have taken steps to protect themselves against unpredictable sick leave policy expenses, others have been hit hard this past year by an unusually high number of retirements.

Thanks to changes in the state law governing public employees, districts can make changes in these programs without having to negotiate with local teachers’ unions.

The MacIver News Service has been conducting research on how different levels of government are impacted by sick leave policy across Wisconsin.  Some policies allow retiring employees to convert unused sick leave into either cash or insurance premiums upon retirement.

We reached out to school district officials across the state, enquiring about their sick leave policies. Almost 80 responded to our requests for information.

Like all levels of government, school districts tend to be generous with sick leave when compared to the private sector. Teachers typically earn 10 to 12 sick days a year, and are allowed to accumulate anywhere from 50 to 160 days. Some districts do not have a limit on how many days can be banked.

What happens to those days when a teacher retires varies greatly. Some districts allow teachers to convert them to cash. Others allow the days to be converted into credits for post-retirement health insurance. And in more than a quarter of the districts that responded, those days are lost upon retirement.

Two superintendents stated their districts view “good health as it’s own reward.”

There were a handful of districts that do not cap the number of days a teacher can bank.  In most of them, those days are lost at retirement anyway. However, two districts, Tomorrow River Schools in Portage County and Sun Prairie school district in Dane County, convert those days into insurance credits. A three year breakdown shows how unpredictable this expense can be.

In 2008-09 TRS paid out $74,970 and SP paid out $27,981. In 2009-10 TRS paid out $102,166 and SP paid out $38,839.  Finally in 2010-11 TRS paid out $118,809 and SP paid out $46,402.

As for districts that pay out sick leave in cash, Palmyra and Sauk Prairie got hit the hardest. In 2009-10 Palmyra paid out $41,331.  In 2010-11 it paid out $109,322.  In 2009-10 Sauk Prairie paid out $45,000.  In 2010-11 it paid out $193,000.

By the way, Palmyra serves a total of 1,152 students and Sauk Prairie serves 2,718, according to DPI.

With Act 10 now in effect, many districts are replacing labor contracts with employee handbooks.  Some districts, like Eau Claire, are moving away from these policies that allow unused sick leave to be cashed out upon retirement.

This is the latest in a series of articles on public employee compensation in Wisconsin.The MacIver News Service earlier reported state employees who had retired in 2011 to that point had converted more than $340 million of unused sick leave into insurance credits. MNS also reported on local governments’ sick leave pay out policies, which also cost millions of dollars annually.