When Terry Buehner retired last year after teaching for 45 years in the Burlington School District, she collected a $26,751 payout for unused sick time on top of her annual salary. The history teacher wasn't alone; she and 23 other retiring or resigning teachers cashed out a total of $457,301 in accumulated sick-leave benefits.
It's a "little savings plan" for teachers to tap when they retire, Buehner said. "Some travel; some pay off loans," she said. "With me, I just put it into my overall pension plan."
Now the Burlington School Board wants to stop extending that golden handshake — a perk that has been in its teachers' union contract for decades. The board, currently in contract negotiations with the teachers, is pushing to reduce certain benefits as it struggles with budget constraints, flat enrollment and conflicting public sentiment about spending.
This spring, hundreds of parents attended board meetings to criticize proposed teacher layoffs and course cuts, especially at Burlington High School. But some taxpayers praised the board and new superintendent Yaw Obeng for imposing fiscal discipline after years of big increases and snowballing deficits.
It's important to remember that some residents are telling the board they can't afford to pay more in taxes, said school board vice chair Stephanie Seguino, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont.
Against that backdrop, the board is trying to make a deal with the union representing its 418 teachers. Talks started last year and have not been easy; the two sides are at an impasse. Teachers are seeking an average 5.3 percent raise, and the board is offering 1.8 percent.
The board says it will consider more generous increases if the union gives up certain perks, including the sick-leave payout and tuition subsidies for graduate school courses.
Eliminating such benefits would give the board more resources to ensure that teachers make a regionally competitive wage, said Seguino, who in the past has argued for alternatives to school suspensions and a new approach to discipline that avoids variations based on race and income. "To reallocate those dollars to salary is what we think is more equitable."
The payouts are essentially bonuses with no link to individual performance, she added. And retirements can be difficult to anticipate. "If you have a larger-than-expected number of retirements, then this can put the budget in a deficit situation," Seguino said. "It's not something that's easy to plan for in advance. It leads to more uncertainly in the budget than if we're allocating these dollars in the form of salary."
So far, the Burlington Education Association has not budged on the payout provision. It's one of many sticking points in negotiations to renew the union's contract. The current three-year pact expires August 31. The board and the union will meet June 30 with a fact finder — a mutually chosen third party who will study the contract issues and make recommendations to help the two sides reach agreement. John Cochran, a Boston-based attorney and arbitrator, has been chosen.
Bob Abbey, president of the BEA, noted that the school board has already whittled down the sick-leave payout for less-senior teachers in previous contracts. The most veteran qualifying teachers, hired in September 1977 or before, can collect payouts equal to about a third of their annual salary. Those who came in the next three decades can get up to a quarter of their salary. Teachers who had less than five years of service as of August 31, 2011, or were hired after that date can qualify for a $5,000 payout.
Last year, sick-leave payouts to teachers ranged from $9,106 to $26,751 — with Buehner and another veteran teacher tied for the top sum.
Buehner, who was the BEA president for a decade, thinks the sick payouts should stay in the contract: "To win that at the table meant that we had to give up something else financially, which of course would have been a raise at the time. I think most teachers would say that it's a benefit that should remain."
Abbey agrees. Teachers think of accumulated sick leave as an "insurance policy" that they can use if a serious injury or illness forces them off the job for an extended period. And if that isn't necessary, they see it as a reward at the end of their service.
"You should be compensated that you didn't take them, in some minor way," he said.
Teachers aren't the only ones with the perk: Mark Aliquo, who retired as director of the Burlington Technical Center last year, received the highest sick-leave payout in the district: $31,027. A Burlington High School secretary received $18,684, and a paraprofessional collected $15,498.
Compensation for unused sick or medical leave is a fairly common feature in teacher contracts across the state, said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-National Education Association, which represents thousands of teachers.
It's less common in the private sector. A national survey of mostly private sector businesses by the Society for Human Resource Management in New York found that 5 percent of employers offered a sick-leave cash-out. In Vermont, it's not something many private businesses give their employees, said Frank Sadowski, a human resources consultant and partner at Gallagher, Flynn & Company in South Burlington.
Why? First of all, it can add up. "You're building up a tremendous liability for the company, which could really be huge depending on how many people you've got," Sadowski said. "Nobody's going to like that kind of thing on their balance sheet."
There's also a philosophical issue at play if the policy tempts people not to use sick days when they need them. "If people are sick, you don't want them coming to work. You don't want them trying to save the day so they get cash for it at the end of the year," Sadowski said.
Despite the hefty cost of unused sick-time payouts, plenty of teachers do call in sick. That has the district trying to rein in a related expense: substitute teachers. In April, Burlington district finance director Nathan Lavery issued a memo to school principals that tightened rules for hiring subs through a private firm. The goal of the policy was to "curtail the unsustainable rate of growth in spending on Kelly Services substitutes," the memo stated. The cost of Kelly subs has more than doubled since 2013 and, in the first nine months of the current fiscal year, hit $560,773.
The substitute cost-control efforts are independent from union negotiations. In those contract talks, the major sticking points are teacher salaries and benefits, which now cost $37 million dollars annually — about 54 percent of this year's voter-approved budget. The median pay for the district's full-time teachers is $71,624.
Teachers work 43 weeks a year, and that time includes eight holidays and 19 school vacation days. They also get four paid personal days and up to five paid bereavement days. Their nine-week summer break is unpaid.
Teachers have a minimum of 20 paid sick days per year. Their unused days can accumulate to a maximum that matches the contracted days in the teacher's work year — about 187.
Educators elsewhere in Chittenden County have comparable benefits. But when it comes to salaries, some earn more.
The union's overall goal is to get "to the middle of the middle" of the pack for teacher pay in Chittenden County, Abbey said. Right now, Burlington teacher pay is slightly below the mid-point for the county and several thousand dollars below the top, according to a school board study of salaries. The study showed that the top salary step for veteran teachers in the county is $88,254, while Burlington's is $82,972; the top starting salary is $44,595, while Burlington's is $41,892.
Many members of the public are more concerned with their tax bills than with boosting teacher pay. When Ward 4 City Councilor and state Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) knocks on doors in the New North End, that's the No. 1 concern, he said.
"I think it's reached a level of an epidemic, in terms of property taxes," said Wright.
The tight school budget increases for this year and next are a step in the right direction, according to Wright. "We can't go right back to the double-digit increases we had been seeing before," he said.
He applauds the school board for seeking to end the sick-leave payouts and put the money toward competitive salaries. "I think to accomplish that, I'm sure they are going to have to look at some of these perks which are clearly not provided in the private sector," Wright said.
Others worry about the impact of lower budgets and skimping on teacher salaries.
"If it comes down to losing a good teacher and hiking my property taxes a little, I say keep the teacher," said Eric Gorman, a doctor who lives on Brookes Avenue, as he dropped his two children off at Edmunds Elementary School on Friday. School is one of the reasons, he said, for which he's "happy to be taxed."
"It's important. It's our kids. It's education," said Gorman. "You need to pay teachers well, and you need to keep the system funded and functional."