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Published November 29 2012

Forum editorial: Unused sick pay no jackpot

How’s this for a retirement bonus: $44,521. That’s the maximum amount an eligible, long-serving Fargo public schools administrator could pocket if cashing in all of his or her untapped sick leave under current policy. For eligible teachers, the maximum is $38,057. Each example represents cashing in on the maximum 180 days of banked sick leave.

Fortunately, whopping payouts like those won’t go on much longer. The Fargo School Board voted Tuesday to end what it calls its employee longevity award program, a move intended to contain what could be a

$7.4 million liability associated with retirements.

It’s a prudent step, one made with the best interest of taxpayers in mind. Although the details are still being worked out, board President Jim Johnson directed staff to keep cost savings in mind when weighing replacement alternatives to banking sick leave for 240 employees “grandfathered” under the discontinued policy. The employee appreciation payments went into effect in the 1990s, as a bridge for maintaining health coverage into retirement, but have come to be regarded as an entitlement among some employees.

Predictably, the Fargo Education Association, which represents teachers, is not happy with ending the longevity rewards. “I’m deeply disappointed for our teachers and support staff who have been relying on this policy,” Kim Belgarde, president of the teachers’ association, said after Tuesday’s vote. Relying on this policy? Really?

Let’s be clear that we don’t begrudge teachers, administrators and support staff their salaries, as well as health benefits and reasonable retirement benefits, which are separate from the longevity awards that have been handed out for almost 20 years. But sick leave should not be confused with retirement benefits. One doesn’t – or shouldn’t – have anything to do with the other.

Although it’s understandable to want to reward years of loyal service, longevity is no guarantee or measurement of merit. Those who have amassed large blocks of unused sick leave should be thankful for their good health, its own form of retirement reward. School employees who are fortunate enough to be paid when sick should regard that as a benefit to be used appropriately – no more than necessary – not built up as a supplemental retirement plan with taxpayers picking up the tab.

The challenge now is to devise a way of phasing out the policy for those covered under the “grandfather clause” without triggering a sudden wave of expensive retirements. To avoid that, and to avoid losing too much experience all at once, they are looking at options to progressively reduce sick leave payouts over several years. Board members must watch out for the taxpayers in disposing of a policy that is unsustainable. Unused sick pay should not become a jackpot.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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