Tuesday, February 17, 1998
Feeling sick? Try CPS cash cure

The Cincinnati Enquirer

As a matter of policy, I try to take the side of educators every chance I get. But I'm having a very hard time on this one.

Why do we pay teachers for not being sick?

I've tried vitamin C and zinc lozenges and chicken soup, but it never occurred to me that money would cure a cold or relieve flu symptoms. It never crossed my mind that the way to get a person back on his feet after heart bypass surgery would be the promise of cash. Does the New England Journal of Medicine know about this?

The only other explanation for the practice of paying a premium for unused sick days is that we think people who choose careers as educators are more likely to be slackers and malingerers. And we must overcome their natural instinct to play hookey by letting them know that we'll sweeten the pot if they come in to work all the time.

It's disrespectful. It's undignified. It's crazy.

Lovely parting gift

State law requires that school districts let teachers earn 15 sick days every year. They can bank up to 120 sick days. When they retire, they're paid for each of the days at 25 percent of their current daily rate.

But that's just the minimum. Cincinnati Public Schools allows its employees to squirrel away an unlimited number of sick days, then pays them 50 percent of their current daily rate. The district also allows administrators, who receive up to 27 vacation days a year, to convert some of those into sick days.

Take, for instance, J. Michael Brandt. The Enquirer's Mark Skertic reported that when the CPS superintendent retires this summer, he'll take an extra $98,728 as compensation for unused sick time.

I'm sorry to shine the spotlight on your windfall, Mr. Brandt, but that's the price of fame, and it's why you get paid the big bucks - an annual salary of $129,591, plus a $5,000 car allowance, a $6,400 expense account, $400,000 in life insurance and an annual $11,922 retirement contribution.

I'm not saying you don't earn every penny, but it appears that you not only have enjoyed good health throughout most of your career, but you now will take away a great big chunk of money. This bonanza is unavailable to somebody who used up all his sick days being sick.

Stories like this won't make it any easier for Cincinnati to convince state legislators that we're good stewards of our money. And this is not going to be persuasive when it comes time to beg taxpayers for more money for schools.

Put kids first

It seems a little peculiar that in the zealous, ''business-like'' overhaul of the system during Mr. Brandt's tenure, nobody decided to overhaul this unhealthy 20-year-old benefit.

There's a better way. The seeds of it are in the team-based teaching that would allow members of the team to cover for each other if one is sick. If no substitute is hired, the team gets to decide how to spend the money elsewhere - on materials or textbooks or field trips.

Even spackling compound and paint, if they think that's in the best interest of the kids.

And meanwhile, I am sorry to notice that however much I like teachers - am awed by them, actually - they are subject to the same frailties as they rest of us. For instance, some of them actually get sick. Really sick. Cancer. Heart. Stuff that eats up a lot of sick days.

Instead of paying off the ones who are lucky enough to be healthy, why don't we protect the ones who get sick? Disability insurance is not exactly a new concept. And if teacher retirement is inadequate, let's look at that, too.

But let's save sick days for sick people.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.