Hernando School district owes more than $10.8 million to employees for accrued sick days

While Wisconsin teachers have come under fire for falsely calling in sick to protest at their state capital – resulting in school closures – one local union official says not to expect anything similar in Florida.

Teachers faced national criticism earlier this month after using sick leave to travel to the capital and protest a bill that limits collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin state workers – a move that cost those taxpayers millions and had bloggers and pundits calling for those educators to be fired, according to the Associated Press.

Mixed with those criticisms were misgivings toward the nationwide practice of allowing state workers, including teachers, to bank sick time and cash them out once they leave – meaning they cash out that sick time at a higher hourly wage than when they initially earned it.

In Hernando County, teachers receive sick leave payouts once they retire based on years of service and their hourly rates when they leave the district.

Sick leave can be transferred from one Florida school district to the other and educators can’t collect any of it until they have worked at least 10 years.

Each year, they receive six days of personal leave and four days of sick leave in Hernando County.

Whatever is left over by the end of the school year is banked as sick leave with the potential to earn 77.5 hours per year.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said some teachers never use their time off – with some teachers collecting close to 2,000 sick leave hours over the course of their long careers, according to district documents.

Others, he said, use theirs each year and bank little. Depending on the situation, some teachers last year used close to 400 sick leave hours.

If the district had to payout sick leave today, administrators estimate it would cost more than $10.8 million – roughly 5 percent of the $203.32 million budget.

What happened in Wisconsin

wouldn’t happen in Florida

Despite bills filed this year in the Legislature that target teacher assessments and retirement, the response by educators has been tame compared to last year’s opposition to Senate Bill 6 – which critics claimed would have ended traditional tenure for teachers and ceded control from local districts to the state.

While opposition is still present this year against similar teacher evaluation bills, Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando County Teachers Association, said educators couldn’t stage something similar to Wisconsin if they wanted to.

The reason, he said, is that rules governing the use of personal and sick leave are much stricter and that disrupting school operations with a walkout would put teachers’ pensions at-risk.

“Florida is a right to work state, whereas Wisconsin is not,” Vitalo said. “Disrupt the school process and you’re out.”

At times, teachers have used sick leave after district officials begin investigating them.

Three days after former Brooksville Elementary School kindergarten teacher Debora Woessner was placed on unpaid leave while investigating multiple claims that she threatened and intimidated her students, she used her banked sick leave to go on medical leave for the remainder of the 2009-10 school year.

She submitted her resignation in June.

Blavatt, who wasn’t with the district at that time, said medical leave was approved for Woessner by administrators. He added that leave – particularly for extended periods of time – must be pre-approved.

From banking time

to ‘use it or lose it’

As to the practice of allowing educators to bank sick time, Blavatt said that process is set by state statute – the same as school board members’ salaries.

“We couldn’t take that away any more than we could cut school board members’ salaries,” Blavatt said.
And no lawmakers are looking at ending that practice either, according to an email response from Deborah Higgins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

Vitalo said the only legislation filed that would affect sick leave is House Bill 1319 and Senate Bill 1902 – which pertain to retirement.

If passed, teachers could no longer use their accrued sick days to boost pensions, as they have done previously, according to the bills’ language.

Instead, Vitalo said teachers could only count 500 sick leave hours toward retirement.

And if by chance the state moved toward a “use-it-or-lose-it” system for sick leave – the same as many private sector jobs – Vitalo said the outcome would likely do more harm than good.

The cost to hire substitute teachers would dramatically increase compared to the more than $1.6 million spent last year due to more educators using their personal days, Vitalo said.

Following the backlash last year from ideas to use long-term substitute teachers in classrooms to meet new class size restrictions, he added that an initiative cause more educators to take time away from the classroom equally would not be well received.

“Studies are showing more and more that students perform better when teachers – not substitutes – are in the classroom,” Vitalo said. “So we don’t want teachers out of the classroom, and we definitely don’t want teachers facing hardships because they have an illness and have to worry about not being paid.”

Reporter Jeff Schmucker can be reached at 352-544-5271 or jschmucker@hernandotoday.com.

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