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2 Investigators: Sick, Vacation Payouts Add Up For Former CPS Employees

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Dave Savini Dave Savini
Award-winning Chicago journalist Dave Savini serves as investigative...
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CHICAGO (CBS) — A crackdown is under way to stop a very expensive — yet legal — perk that has been enjoyed by employees at some city agencies.

CBS 2’s Dave Savini has been investigating the high cost of unused sick and vacation time at Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  And now Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered an immediate halt of this type of payout for non-union employees, and ultimately, he wants the perk eliminated across the board.

Arne Duncan, the former CEO of CPS, was paid $50,296.77 when he left the school system to become President Obama’s secretary of education.

Barbara Eason-Watkins, former chief education officer, walked away with $159,848.54.

Both cashed in unused sick or vacation time — a jackpot for CPS administrators and teachers who quit or retire.

CPS records obtained by the 2 Investigators show a whopping $89 million has been paid out for this perk in the last three years alone. At least 203 employees received payouts of $80,000 or more.

Jitu Brown, a local school council leader, says what CBS 2 uncovered should be spent on crumbling, cash-strapped schools.

“It’s horribly sad, but I’m not surprised,” he says.

At one point, the school he represents, Walter H. Dyett High School, had only seven books in the library and lost five teachers, including the art instructor.

“There were other priorities other than our children’s education,” Brown says. “We thank you for bringing this out.”

Another former CPS employee, Ascencion Juarez, was paid $170,787.71 for his unused time. When asked whether the amount is excessive, he responded, “It’s the system. It’s the policy that was there.”

CBS 2 found there is even a perk to using this perk. Employees are paid for these unused days at their current salary. In the case of Juarez, 219 of his saved sick days were old, from before 1998, during years he was making less than half his final salary.

But those 219 days were paid out based on his final top salary, which was $166,904.76.

Then there is Scott Feaman. The former Lake View High School principal topped everyone with a payout of $211,640.97.

Becky Malone, a Mount Greenwood Elementary parent representative, says the money could help save valuable programs.

The $89 million total could buy more than 140,000 iPads for students and is certainly enough to put paint on the chipping walls at Dyett High School. It also would be enough to pay a full year’s salary for 1,760 new teachers.

Eason-Watkins had 80 unused sick days from her days as a principal, which were paid out at her nearly double administrator’s salary. She did not respond for a request for comment.

All employees could accrue 325 sick days.

Adding to the cost: Some payouts are used to increase final salaries, which then increases the retired employees’ pensions.

bga logo 2 Investigators: Sick, Vacation Payouts Add Up For Former CPS Employees

Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

The Better Government Association has also been looking into payouts for sick days.

Not all schools have this perk. In fact, Elgin School District U46 and the Indian Prairie School Districts have a “use it or lose it” policy for their employees.

Duncan, asked for a response, said: “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.”

In response to CBS 2’s investigation, CPS issued a statement: “Per Mayor Emanuel’s directive to all sister agencies, CPS has halted sick day payments to non-union employees and are currently reviewing our sick day policy. Mayor Emanuel made it clear that he finds the current policy unacceptable and CPS is facing difficult fiscal times. It is incumbent upon us to be fiscally conservative with every taxpayer dollar we spend to ensure that every available dollar is being invested in our students.  We expect to present recommendations on our sick day policy on February 17th as the Mayor has requested.”

Mayor Emanuel issued his own statement: “As Mayor, my greatest responsibility is to ensure that Chicago government is transparent, accountable, and responsive to city taxpayers. That is why I have zero tolerance for waste or benefit abuses of any kind.

Since taking office eight months ago, I have aggressively moved to stop and prevent such practices by enacting policies that promote a culture of accountability and fairness, including limiting vacation day carryovers and vacation day payouts; revoking government-issued credit cards after inappropriate use; and implementing the City’s first paid maternity leave policy.

As part of this continuing effort, I have ordered all City of Chicago sister agencies to halt payments to non-union employees for unused sick days effective immediately. Further, I ordered agencies to review all policies and procedures regarding sick days, including method of accrual; compensation to active or separating employees; carryover provisions; and annual costs; and to come up with a plan to permanently terminate all payouts for unused sick time.  Agencies including City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Housing received this directive and must submit their initial reviews to me by February 17, 2012.”

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