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Wisconsin Schools Alter Sick-Leave Plans

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Many Wisconsin school districts have been making rapid changes to insurance benefits and work rules for employees no longer covered by collective bargaining agreements, but a few districts also are setting their sights on modifying sick-leave policies.

For educators, it's seen as one more benefit being sliced in the wake of Act 10, the new law signed by Gov. Scott Walker that limits collective bargaining.

For school boards and district officials, it's another benefit to be examined because of reduced state funding and limitations on raising property taxes to cover costs.

Financial savings from sick-leave changes are considerably smaller than big-ticket cost reductions often found in switching a health insurance plan design or carrier. So why is sick leave such a hot topic?

"I suspect some of this interest comes from a desire to be more like the private sector," said Barry Forbes, a staff attorney for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. "Is that a good idea? I'm not sure."

WASB has been advising districts around the state as they develop employee handbooks and consider major changes to employee wages, benefits and work rules that previously had to be negotiated with unions.

But when it comes to sick time for teachers who work around lots of kids known for having lots of germs, Forbes has cautioned districts to tread lightly and not make big changes if it's not necessary to balance the budget.

The school districts of Hamilton and Elmbrook in Waukesha County both have modified their sick-time policies. Hamilton educators used to have about 20 sick days per year, and the new policy cuts that approximately in half, said Denise Dorn Lindberg, spokeswoman for the district.

Accrual Reduction

Hamilton's teaching staff members used to be able to accrue a maximum of 75 sick days over the course of their career; the new maximum is 30 days—time that can be used to cover extended recovery from illness or injury. But while the bank of days went down, it's also been restructured to act more like a portable benefit, Lindberg said. For example, any unused leave acquired beyond 30 days can be converted to $125 per day and deposited in a teacher's retirement account.

Also, the district has rolled sick leave, bereavement leave and emergency days into one "paid time off" pot.

"The system we've moved to rewards good attendance, and in the past it didn't," Lindberg said. "That helps us cut the costs of substitutes and increase teachers' contact time with students."

Elmbrook's school board approved reducing the number of sick days from 10 to 15 per year to seven days for all employees, three of which can be used for personal purposes, said Assistant Superintendent of Finance Keith Brightman.

He said the new policy helps prevent "more discretionary absences."

The change is projected to save the district 161 days of substitute costs, which would be a savings of about $16,000, Brightman said.

In the past, Elmbrook allowed employees to accumulate up to 90 sick days in a bank. Brightman said he wasn't sure if the seven days per year allotted now would be eligible for banking.

Brightman said the district also found more savings by modifying the long-term disability payout. After a 60-day waiting period for long-term disability, he said, employees will receive about 70% of their income instead of 90%. That change is projected to save the district about $60,000.

On Monday, the school board in New Berlin is scheduled to discuss the district's new employee handbook, which also addresses sick-leave policy changes.

Roger Dickson, finance director for New Berlin, said the district is looking at allowing employees five or six days of sick leave per year, which is a slight reduction from what employees had under the old contract.

The district also has proposed dropping the sick-leave accrual maximum to 45 from 60 days.

Teacher opposition could be strong at the New Berlin meeting Monday, as the Wisconsin Education Association Council has encouraged members to attend. The organization circulated information about the various changes being considered in the New Berlin handbook.

Christina Brey, spokeswoman for WEAC, said that under collective bargaining, teachers and administrators used to discuss wages, working conditions and sick leave.

"(School employees) work in an environment with many children and many sicknesses that come through the school," she said. "We don't want our educators coming to school when they're not completely healthy, which is one reason that sick-leave policies probably evolved in the way that they have. One bout of very severe cold or a flu can put you out for a week."

Critical of Cuts

Bob Barinowski, a retired teacher from New Berlin, said the proposed changes to sick leave seem overly harsh.

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Like many teachers, Barinowski built up a bank of sick-leave days during the course of his career. When he needed surgery one year, he said, he used 42 out of the 60 days he had accumulated in his sick bank.

"It kept me from being worried about getting paid and supporting my family during that period," he said.

When Barinowski retired, he said, the 55 days in his sick bank simply disappeared, as they do in many districts that don't pay out for the days.

Many Milwaukee-area school district leaders say they are not modifying sick leave and will use the policies in place under the old negotiated contracts. School district leaders in Whitnall, Waukesha and Shorewood said their boards might consider sick-leave changes in the future, but are not doing anything now.

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