Just four days after a scathing joint investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association found that the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools system has paid out $265 million worth of unused sick and vacation days to outgoing employees, the fallout has only just begun.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune weighed in on the matter in an op-ed -- titled "Sick, Sick, Sick" -- that urged former CPS CEO and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to return the $50,297 payout he received for his unused vacation days when he left the system in 2009:
You want to do something good for the schools and set an example for everyone who works there?
Write a check for $50,297.
Make it out to Chicago Public Schools. On the memo line put "Re: unearned pay."
The Tribune editorial went on to describe CPS's policy as "maddening" and a "stealthy budget-buster" and goes on to accuse Duncan, who oversaw the system for over seven years, as taking "advantage of just the kind of boondoggle that has created deep financial distress for states and local governments and schools."
The report at the center of the controversy found that, since 2006, CPS has paid $265 million to some 19,000 former employees in exchange for their unused sick and vacation days. CPS teachers, who receive 10 sick days per year, are required to work at least 20 years or reach the age of 65 to qualify for the perk.
Payouts have averaged just under $14,000, while approximately 300 former principals and administrators received more than $100,000 -- and as much as $250,000 -- upon their exit from the system under the policy. Some former CPS employees reportedly used the payouts to boost their pension benefits.
Duncan responded last week to the report by stating that "people should take a good hard look at whether or not that policy makes any sense and whether it should be kept in place in these tight budget times."
The Chicago Sun-Times weighed in Sunday with a more nuanced response to the report. While it agreed that "CPS must reign in this benefit, a perk it can ill afford and is virtually unheard of in the private sector," the paper also urged the school system and the teachers union to work out an agreement on paid maternity or short-term disability leave, neither of which CPS currently offers its employees, to help alleviate system employees' primary need for banked sick days:
The CTU defends the benefit, saying the ability to stockpile days discourages teachers from calling in sick unnecessarily. Extra days, the CTU also notes, were offered in the early 1980s as deferred compensation and in lieu of raises. These are good points, but reducing the number of accumulated sick days, even significantly, would still be fair and prudent.
"Fix that problem," find a way to properly fund it and, the Sun-Times continues, "the arguments against reducing accumulated sick days disappear."
Kenzo Shibata, Chicago Union Teacher editor and HuffPost Chicago blogger, defended the payout policy in a Tuesday essay. Shibata took issue with the popular claim of "That's not how it's done in the private sector" in his response to the BGA's report.
"Private-sector workers should not tear down teachers, police and firefighters for some of the benefits received for having fought collectively," Shibata wrote. "They need to organize and demand a fair wage and benefits in their workplaces."