"Wow," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the panel's Education and Youth Committee, when she heard the amount being paid.
But she said that while she would encourage the school system to examine the fiscal impact, she does not encourage it to join the national trend of reneging on union contracts. She said she's been pleased to see the system crack down in other areas to save money.
The system's annual payouts for sick leave and accrued leave increased sharply after Alonso arrived in 2007 and have risen steadily each year since.
Last year, the system paid $4.6 million for unused sick time to 626 employees; and 1,118 employees left the district with $9.8 million in accrued personal and sick leave and vacation time. The accrued payouts for last year included a buyout of more than 300 of the city's longest-tenured educators, but cost only $1 million more than the year before.
City school officials said the increases reflect a "cultural shift" under the leadership of Alonso, whose administration has pushed productivity and results.
Officials said the annual sick leave numbers show that more employees are using their sick leave judiciously and are showing up to work more often.
The accrued leave payouts, they said, reflect that employees who were not meeting the challenge of the schools chief's reforms — or were near retirement and chose not to be a part of them — are leaving, as is the case with many of the system's veteran principals.
The accrued leave data show that those who retired or resigned averaged 25 years of service, a number that has remained consistent.
The highest payout last year to a principal was $122,000, to a school leader who retired from the system after 38 years.
"You have to pay a price for something so aggressive," Alonso said.
The city pays the perks from its payroll, while most districts roll the costs into retirement benefits that are paid by the state.
Just one neighboring school jurisdiction, Anne Arundel County, pays out sick leave on an annual basis, but only for employees who have 15 years of service, and the payouts are under $1,000. Other accrued benefits are rolled into a special pay plan.
Baltimore also has much higher caps on how much vacation time employees can cash out when they leave the district.
For example, in the Howard and Baltimore County school districts, which do not pay sick leave conversion, the maximum amounts of vacation a retiree can cash out are 40 days and 45 days, respectively.
In Baltimore, the least amount of time an employee can cash out is 72 days, as is the case for 12-month employees in the Baltimore Teachers Union.
The group that can cash out the most time is unaffiliated employees, such as managers in the central office, who can accrue up to 192 days. Last year, the highest payout to an unaffiliated administrator was $177,952.
Edwards said the district's benefits could come up in future negotiations with the unions, but in the last round, the priority was to negotiate pay-for-performance contracts for most of the school system's workforce.
The president of the city principals union, whose members have been among the largest beneficiaries of the policy, said it is unlikely that the administrators would give up the perk.
"We will never give up sick leave conversion," Gittings said. "Our administrators are expected to be on every day, are paid less than in other [districts], and that would mean that they'd retire and give back two-thirds of their salary."
City schools pay nearly $65 million for unused leave over 5 years
Employee perks rare in the region, embattled nationally
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