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Two Districts To Allow Teachers To Defer Pay To Finance Leaves

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School districts in Muskegon County, Mich., and Rochester, N.Y., this year will become the first in the nation to offer an innovative teacher-leave policy used throughout Canada.

The policy--approved by the two districts for next fall--allows teachers to defer part of their salary for several years to finance a planned leave of absence, with the guarantee of a job when they return.

The plan has been promoted by union leaders, school officials, and experts on teacher compensation as a way to reduce teacher "burnout'' and cut costs.

Although many school systems in the United States already have paid-sabbatical leaves, the competition for them can be stiff due to budget constraints, said Stephen L. Jacobson, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo who has researched Canada's deferred-pay model.

Deferred-salary leaves offer many of the same benefits as a sabbatical, say union backers, but have the advantage of not requiring teachers to justify their time off, since they finance the leave themselves.

The concept first took hold in the Lakehead school district in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the late 1970's, Mr. Jacobson explained, as schools across Canada and the United States were experiencing declining enrollments.

Looking for a way to avoid sending out pink slips, the Lakehead schools turned to salary deferrals, said Wallie Beevor, the district's director of education, or superintendent, at the time the plan was adopted.

"Professional athletes defer money all the time,'' Mr. Beevor said. "We thought surely there should be an arrangement for other people.''

Today, teachers in more than 90 percent of Ontario's schools can defer their salaries, as can most educators and public employees in other provinces.

'Four Over Five'

The approach has been a success, according to school officials in Thunder Bay, where more than 300 teachers have participated over the last decade.

"We never had to declare one teacher surplus'' after the plan was implemented, Mr. Beevor said. "We were able to manage our human resources and make work for people--a significant advantage.''

Under a common "four over five'' plan, a teacher takes a 20 percent cut in pay for four years and then is paid 80 percent of his or her salary during a fifth-year hiatus.

Teachers who opt for the plan continue to accrue pension benefits and seniority. They also receive interest on the deferred portion of their salary, which is held by the district.

The Canadian revenue service taxes teachers only on the income they receive, and not on what they would have earned had they not participated. The agency allows teachers to defer no more than one-third of their salary, however, and for no longer than six years.

Some of those details have not been worked out for the U.S. districts adopting salary deferrals, since officials are not sure how federal tax authorities will react to the plans.

Districts reap a small saving from deferrals, as long as the teachers on leave are at the top of the career ladder and those replacing them are lower-paid substitutes or trainees.

Another benefit, say advocates, is that districts can offer experience to novice teachers and identify future hires.

'A More Humane Policy'

But the "possibility for renewal'' is the real boon to a district and its teaching force, Mr. Jacobson argued.

"This is, over all, a more humane personnel policy,'' added Superintendent Stan Fortuna Jr. of the 2,000-student Oakridge Public Schools in Muskegon County.

The Oakridge district was the first in this country to adopt the Canadian model.

"It's a way to improve morale and save money,'' Mr. Fortuna added. "Either way, it's benefiting kids.''

The district and the local teachers' union last summer agreed on a plan allowing educators to individually negotiate leaves.

The district's flexible "X over Y'' policy gives teachers the option of taking a break in any year they choose, provided they follow certain guidelines, said Mr. Fortuna.

Benefits will be suspended for teachers during the leave, but seniority will be retained.

The Rochester district's four-over-five plan is also expected to be offered next fall.

The Rochester teachers' union finally worked out a deferred-leave plan with the district this winter after proposing it for several years, said Adam Urbanski, the president of the union.

The 35,000-student district, which has been nationally recognized for its innovations, already has restructured its teaching force and incorporated accountability in its teachers' contracts. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

"This is another good example of a cooperative venture'' between the union and the district, said Mr. Urbanski, who added that the plan is "particularly salient'' as schools consider job sharing and other options.

"One of the biggest problems, I think, in our profession is that the system is set up with the temptation to stop learning once we start teaching,'' he remarked. "I think we ought to support members to take time out to rejuvenate their commitment.''

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