Should North Country teachers get to “retire” on their sick days?

The Glens Falls Post Star is calling on its editorial page for more openness during contract talks between school districts and unions.

One detail they note is that the Warrensburg district appears to be allowing teachers to accrue huge chunks of sick days, which can then be used to effectively retire early, while taxpayers continue to pay for a full-time teacher.

If you believe the devil is in the detail, here is one that stuck out to us. Warrensburg teachers have been able to roll over unused sick days with no limit so they could eventually be used as an early retirement at full pay.

Warrensburg’s school board wanted to cap the sick days at 235 days (more than a year’s worth of paid time and a pretty offer in our estimation). The union said changes to sick days and health insurance were “deal-breakers.”

Often it is benefits such as these we hear the most outrage over from taxpayers. We believe that teachers perform an immensely important role in our society and should be paid accordingly, but we’re not so sure they should be able to run up years worth of sick time. Sick time is supposed to be used when you are sick, not for when you retire.

So what do you think?  This is the sort of thing that often makes private sector workers grumble.  In the non-government world, sick days are sick days, not a vacation or retirement benefit.

What do you think?  Should the same apply to teachers?  Or should teachers who don’t get sick get to bank their days?

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46 Comments on “Should North Country teachers get to “retire” on their sick days?”

  1. State workers get to use the value of accrued sick time to offset health insurance contributions in retirement. I think that is fair but the practice of using accrued sick time to retire early at full pay is an abuse of the concept of sick time in my mind unless it is a disability retirement.

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  2. JDM says:

    We cannot afford a public working class that has superior benefits to the private sector which supports them.

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  3. Anita says:

    I’m in the public sector, in a quasi-governmental agency. Our employees can participate in NYS retirement and NYS health insurance. On retirement from the agency and its counterparts across the state, employees are allowed to convert their unused sick time into a subsidy to help pay for the costs of health insurance in retirement. That’s the practice for NYS employees as well, and it seems like a more reasonable use of unused sick time than converting it into the equivalent of time worked.

    I’m a supporter of public education and of unions, but geesh, the union really has a tin ear in cases like this.

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  4. Walker says:

    “Often it is benefits such as these we hear the most outrage over from taxpayers. We believe that teachers perform an immensely important role in our society and should be paid accordingly, but we’re not so sure they should be able to run up years worth of sick time. Sick time is supposed to be used when you are sick, not for when you retire.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. And I say that as someone who worked in public colleges for thirty years. There were way too many strange deals like this, some of which were written into the contract, but many of which were just “past practice”. Unions serve an important function, but it is abuses such as these that have turned “union” into a dirty word. We need to clean up such practices, and if unions were smart, they wouldn’t fight it.

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  5. mervel says:

    Oh its nuts.

    However a deal is a deal. If the school system does not like the offer don’t do it! It takes two parties to agree to these insane benefits. If I were a teacher or a union official of course I would push for everything I could get including this.

    Unions are a good thing, in the private sector they do an important service and in many ways should be strengthened. In the public sector it is a totally different situation, it is the reason that FDR was against public unions.

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  6. mervel says:

    But then again the North Country seems to be ok with this. If I was an administrator I would give them the benefits and raise property taxes again and again, and then do layoffs on the young teachers every year, which is the plan right now. No one is really going to complain. Who is really going to stand up against this practice in any sort of serious way?

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  7. Ron Shirtz says:

    If you want to remove teachers sick days, then you better be willing to require it of every city, county, and state employee, be it State Trooper, Correctional Officer, Firefighter, School Superintendents, SUNY chancellors State legislators, Judges, DA’s and everyone else through up to the Governor.

    I mean, we are talking about being fair, right? What’s good for one is good for others receiving the same or similar benefits, right?

    Or are other state employees more equal than teachers when it comes to discussion cuts in benefits and salary?

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  8. scratchy says:

    I’m not against fair wages and benefits but using sick time to retire early is not the purpose behind using sick time.

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  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I didn’t think teachers ever retired. I thought they all took a buy out.

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  10. Gary says:

    This is unheard of! I can’t believe a school board would ever think of going down this road. My fear is this one isolated case will stir up negative public opinion for districts and unions.

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  11. BRFVolpe says:

    I would seriously challenge the Post Star’s facts. No teacher in NYS can retire “early”. The state dicates the conditions of age and years of service, and if you’re not old enough or haven’t worked enough years, you can’t collect a nickel. No teacher in NYS can teach long enough to retire at “full pay”. No matter how long you’ve taught, you can never get as much in retirement as you got in the classroom. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RETIRING ON FULL PAY.

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  12. Brian Mann says:

    Volpe –

    That’s not what the Post Star is saying. They’re saying that teachers can effectively step away from the classroom for a full year (or longer) using their accrued sick leave, while still receiving full pay. They then graduate into retirement and their pension.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  13. Gillian says:

    Teachers have to actually be sick to use their sick days – “The Chief Executive Officer may request a statement by a licensed physician from a teacher who is absent because of personal illness or physical disability on ten (10) or more consecutive school days…”

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  14. Newt says:

    As a teacher I was allowed to accrue unlimited sick days. When I retired a payment for these , much less than the per diem equivalent of those days, was put put into my retirement account. I think it makes sense to reward workers, and all workers, for not missing work for minor illnesses.

    I can’t see a teacher, or anyone, being allowed to retire using accrued sick time.

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  15. mervel says:

    Every union and little school district negotiates their own contracts. One advantage of having larger districts would be a more uniform contract across a much larger area.

    I assume Warrensburg voters recently passed their school budget without a hitch. So it would seem the public is in favor of the way in which this contract has been negotiated.

    It is not about what is fair it is about who negotiates the best deal.

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  16. Peter Hahn says:

    The total compensation package is what we should be looking at, not the value of any specific benefits.

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  17. myown says:

    So much concern over one benefit in a total compensation package. Let’s go after the teachers again.

    JDM says, “We cannot afford a public working class that has superior benefits to the private sector which supports them.”

    Absolutely right – although teachers still have a ways to go to catch up to private sector golden parachutes.

    Here is someone who lost $2 billion (maybe$7 billion) at JP Morgan and got a going away gift of $32 million. I guess she must have had a lot of unused sick days.

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  18. stillin says:

    What we really should be looking at is the unbelieveable NEPOTISM, and CORRUPTION going on at ALL THE SMALL NORTH COUNTRY SCHOOLS and some of the bigger ones as well. The elephant in the living room is not the sick day/ retirement pensions etc. it is the ABSOLUTE criminal way administrators are hiring who they are related to, or friends, and giving a hard time to anybody they want to push out. School boards are in bed with administration you can trust that. I think the small north country schools would be shut down by the state, if the state wasn’t in cahoots with them. When this all comes out down the road, and it will ( KARMA ) it will make watergate look like a faucet drip.

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  19. I’m very sympathetic to teachers and feel they get treated badly by a society desperately looking for scapegoats. That said, this sort of things makes it harder to defend them. They are sick days, not vacation or personal days. Their purpose is for them to be used when the employee is sick. Illness and medical appointments (or perhaps bereavement) are the *only* things they should be used for. Otherwise, why are they called “sick days” and not vacation or personal days.

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  20. Pete Klein says:

    What you have here is simply a case of kicking the can down the road, a very common practice in both the government and the large corporations when it comes to pay.
    It is easier to offer benefits than to raise the pay. It looks better on the books. The problems start when the chickens come home to roost.
    On the surface, providing for sick days and vacation days looks reasonable and fair. But once employees were allowed to accumulate them and use them as though they were cash, the problem was created. Now you even see it where employees are permitted to gift sick days to another employee who has used up all of their sick days due to an extended illness.
    Is this right or wrong? It depends on how you view sick days and vacation days. If you view them as compensation in place of a higher wage, then it is right. If not, then it is wrong. But herein is the problem.
    If you want and maybe you should, you can throw health insurance into the mix because it is but another form of a benefit in place of cash wages.

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  21. Peter Hahn says:

    The only problem is when school boards give deferred compensation (like in this case), without thinking through how much it is going to cost in the long run. This particular benefit doesn’t cost anything at first (when first agreed to) , but over time it costs more and more. It is still only a year’s pay/employee at retirement. Far worse is when municipal governments agree to generous pensions that some future administration will be stuck paying for. If the amount deposited in the pension fund is too little (like assuming a 10% rate of return – or even the current 7.5%) then future tax payers get stuck making up the difference.

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  22. Peter Hahn says:

    But it not the union’s fault for negotiating a good contract for the employees.

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  23. Nancy says:

    I have to question the size of this problem. Other than working in a hospital, being surrounded by sneezing, coughing children all day has got to be one of the most unhealthy places to work. It’s difficult to believe that any teacher could accumulate a year’s worth of sick leave. Maybe when they reach the 30 year mark. Most have used up sick time with major health problems by that time. And isn’t it an incentive to have them in the classroom rather than paying a sub $100 per day to fill in? You can pay the sub when the teacher is out sick or pay the same sub when they retire. And are we talking one or two teachers in one small district? Tempest in a teapot. By the way, teachers are also members of the private sector that pay property taxes. It’s not ‘us’ versus ‘them’…we all pay.

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  24. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    What is negotiated and is agreed upon in the contract is not up for discussion until the contract is up for re-negotiation. A contract is a contract and should be upheld until such time that it is modified by a future agreement. The union must have had a field day negotiating this contract. The school district should try to include a few intelligent types the next time they sit with the union. Maybe the school board should look at the contract before ratifying it. I know that these are all novel ideas. When is the last time that you elected a school board member that ever had the guts to vote NO on anything?

    That being said. How long does it take to build up 235 sick days? If you agree to providing 8-10 sick days per year and allow for their uninbited accumulation, you’re an idiot.

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  25. Paul says:

    Sick time is sick time. Use it when necessary or lose it. If we want to give them more paid time off fine but call it what it is. It ain’t “sick time”.

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  26. Indy says:

    I don’t work in the public sector and do not get to accumulate sick days for any purpose, it is use them in a given year or they are gone, period. If I was lucky enough to stay healthy enough to accumulate some ridiculous number of sick days at the end of my work tenure I’d consider myself blessed and be happy to “leave them on the table”. Anyone who has had health problems knows what I,m talking about. Being able to use sick days for full pay seems ridiculous, using them to pay for a portion of health Insurance seems semi reasonable.

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  27. mervel says:

    I have seen it done all different ways. Where I am now, no sick time is not convertible to actual time off and you can’t endlessly accumulate it. However I have worked at a place where you could trade a percentage of unused sick time and covert it for vacation days.

    But like others have said its all about what is negotiated. I think the board would in general have the public’s support in not allowing these sorts of benefits. The ball is in their court. The other issue is you have an unpaid school board, an administrator who does not want problems, and a voting public that seems to not care very much about school budget votes regardless of the impact on property taxes. In this situation why fight it, why not simply agree to most things and get the support of the education unions?

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  28. Sunshine says:

    Really, getting reimbursed in any way for unused sick days. Yes, there are numerous examples that can be cited but, if folks are unhappy about teacher’s contracts, they should attend school board meetings and let their feelings be known.
    Teaching is still a good profession to be in, particularly here in the North Country where a teacher’s salary goes further than in many other parts of the state. Here, there are not nearly enough professional positions for available professionals. So those of us who work, are lucky.
    FYI: Salaried means pay for work done…in whatever time it takes to do required work…and for the stated number of weeks to be worked. I’m hard pressed to sympathize with workers who are paid a good salary for time worked.
    I work in the education field and am thrilled to have so many paid holidays and vacations and to receive such good benefits. And I love my job and I love working with our youth. And after a vacation or a holiday, I come back to the job, refreshed, ready and willing for the many challenges I face on a daily basis.
    And, I believe that most educatiors feel the same way.
    Unions: get out of our way. Don’t make us look mean, greedy and petty.

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  29. Joseph M. Liotta says:

    “Unions: get out of our way. Don’t make us look mean, greedy and petty”.

    Evidently Sunshine, the teacher, has not had the need for a union. That is living a sheltered life. The New York State United Teachers is not mean, greedy and petty. It is needed by the public, the students and finally, the teachers. See what a mess your public schools would be without teachers unions.

    Jim Bullard is a member of the Board of Education at Potsdam Central and has
    been for some time. Have you read the Potsdam Board of Ed’s contract with your teacher’s union? It’s right in the contract.

    There are some very good reasons that this benefit is part of many teacher/board of ed contracts. Believe me, it is no golden parachute. Teaching is one of the hardest professional jobs there is. It was as great profession until recently. It is not all sunshine.

    I gave 33 years of my life to public education. I get tired of the teacher bashing Mr. Brian Mann.

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  30. Pete Klein says:

    In NY average teacher salary is about $37,321 to start with an overall average of $57,354.
    How does this compare to the NYS State Police?
    State troopers — ubiquitous in their blue and gold cruisers on New York’s roadways — are well-paid for the job, averaging $112,537 for all ranks in 2010, a Poughkeepsie Journal study of state payroll records shows.
    I guess the police have a better union than the teachers.

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  31. Sunshine says:

    l cannot agree that “teaching is one of the hardest professional jobs there is.” I have worked as a journalist, executive director for three different non-for-profits, editor, writer and in public relations for a large arts organization throughout my working years.
    The education field has been much easier than some of the other professions in which I have worked…much longer hours, much fewer holidays and much shorter vacations and fewer benefits.
    Physicians, clergypeople, most service positions are very challenging jobs…ones I would prefer not to do.
    Folks choose to teach. No one forces them to do this work. If teachers find the work too difficult or challenging, they should change professions.
    And, I’ve never known of another profession, short of on wall street, where the incompetent worker is protected from job loss if s/he is tenured.
    The ‘outside of education’ fields I’ve worked in functions like this: you do a good job…you keep your job and may even move up a rung or two on the ladder. You do a poor job, you are reprimanded, instructed and/or fired. No protection, period.
    All jobs have challenges, trials and tribulations. We each choose our own poison.

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  32. mervel says:

    Teachers are fine there is no concerted effort to change any of the generous benefit packages that teachers have in the North Country.

    Of course the cost is continual lay-offs of younger teachers.

    The key thing as a taxpayer I would want to see is the ability to terminate really bad teachers. We do have really bad teachers, they are a very small minority of teachers but they do tremendous damage to generations of children. They are simply in the wrong field.

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  33. Joseph M. Liotta says:

    So Sunshine, you think you found a plum and damn everybody else. And your are implying that I was in the wrong field for 33 years. It’s evident you haven’t taught for that long.

    You simply don’t know what you are talking about.

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  34. Peter Hahn says:

    Union -bashing and especially public employee union bashing has gotten pretty ugly. Unions primary responsibility is to negotiate conditions of employment and then to make sure that the agreed upon rules are followed.

    To their credit they have negotiated contracts where the lower level employees get the same benefits as the higher paid ones. It is these benefit packages that the anti-government anti tax agitators have seized on for propaganda purposes.

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  35. Walker says:

    Sunshine, you figure that outside of public education, the only people who have jobs are competent and hard-working?! Wow! You are full of sunshine! But how do you explain General Motors?

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  36. Sunshine says:

    Joe and Walker,
    In an effort to keep my response brief…not an essay…I put forth a few observations.
    First, I have worked (with great success) in the field of education for over ten years. I have received praise, commendations and continued employment. I can say the same for the other professions I’ve worked in.
    Both gentlemen made assumptions and conclusions I did not make.
    My point is and was: choose a profession/job which you enjoy and are good at doing and you will not become embittered.
    If the work you are doing does not fulfill your needs, wants, desires and expectations, look elsewhere.
    Perhaps my joy and success in the work world is due to the fact that for me, work is a way of earning money…it is not my life. To keep my life happy and secure, I choose to do work that I am skilled at.
    I have quit jobs when the workplace was hostile.
    And no, I am not a trustfunder. I just don’t require a lot of money to make me happy or to sustain me and my family.
    Remember when you were young and felt you had the whole world ahead of you? Well, I am no longer young and I still feel that way. Life is an adventure and I am not a martyr. I believe in equality for all.

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  37. mervel says:

    The bottom line is what can we afford?

    I think in the north country most voters and property owners have decided that they are ok with the teacher contacts the way that they are now.

    I think the tax cap makes it a little more difficult in that you need the extra 10% vote, but in the last round of elections I think most budgets passed with more than 60%.

    It is harder up here, particularly in the poorer counties such as St. Lawrence because most people just don’t have a reference point. Teaching in these poor counties is a really highly paid profession compared to the general population, with much better benefits than the vast majority of people who are working in those counties. I think you get more of the resentment in those cases. If you are in westchester or those wealthy downstate districts, an average pay of 50,000 is not that great. In St. Lawrence County 50,000 is a high salary if you get a husband and wife both teaching they are rich.

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  38. Walker says:

    I don’t know, Mervel, I don’t think it’s about what we can afford at all, and I’ll bet you Mitt Romney’s $10,000 that 99.9% of all voters are completely unaware of these contract details (if they’re even in the contract, and not simply part of sacred “past practice”).

    No, it’s about school boards and school administrators wanting to be nice guys (and in no small part due to the fact that whatever perks the teachers get, the administration gets too).

    School boards need to tighten up on these kinds of practices. Sick days are a perfectly reasonable provision– you don’t want your employees dragging themselves to work when they’re sick and infecting everyone else. You also don’t want them using sick days as vacation time, let alone an early retirement provision, because if teachers look at them this way, you’re right back to folks dragging themselves into work when they’re sick– they won’t want to “waste” them on actual illness.

    So sick days should definitely not accrue from year to year. And you need to make it part of the institutional culture that you don’t abuse them– if people are seen bopping around town when they’re supposedly sick, or if they come in after a sick day telling tales of what a nice time they had, they should be given a hard time about it. You’ll never stamp out this kind of behavior entirely, but you can’t just let it slide, either.

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  39. Walker says:

    Sunshine, I was responding to your comment “The ‘outside of education’ fields I’ve worked in functions like this: you do a good job…you keep your job and may even move up a rung or two on the ladder. You do a poor job, you are reprimanded, instructed and/or fired. No protection, period.”

    Inside and outside of education aren’t all that different. I’ve read accounts of private industry slackers doing just fine for years on end. I’ve seen hard-working college faculty rewarded for their hard work, and I’ve seen them denied tenure for no particular reason. One size does not fit all.

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  40. Joseph M. Liotta says:

    To be clearer about it Sunshine, I have successfully taught for more than 30 years, and for 39 years as an advocation I have run one of the most successful arts projects in Northern New York State.

    Both of these activities have been frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Both have been hard work.

    That is not what we are talking about here. It’s about the flexibility built into these contracts. This flexibility promotes the public good, the students good and the teachers good. Everyone is a winner in some way or other. It’s too bad that not every working segment of society doesn’t have similar benefits.

    This discussion remind me of an article in the New Yorker published in the late 60’s when teachers unions came on the scene . It was called “Physic Rewards”.
    Here is the gist of the article.

    Miss Millie’s Funeral: She lived to be 92. Miss Millie was loved by all. At her funeral the whole community was there. Each of the speakers representing all parts of the community, praised Miss Millie for her various contributions and commitments to the young people of the community. After all she had taught all of them for 55 years, well into her 70’s.

    She didn’t get many monetary rewards. She didn’t need them. After all, she received all of those “physic” rewards. In other words she was rewarded by feeling good.

    You can’t eat “feeling good”.

    Nevertheless, Miss Millie died a respected pauper.

    Teachers should not die respected paupers. Neither should anybody else.

    Get off your duffs and demand a better distribution of the wealth of this nation.
    If you don’t want that don’t complain about teachers salaries, benefits, and all the rest.

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  41. mervel says:

    Well until the revolution what do we do with property taxes that are at some of the highest rates in the nation? How do you justify that in counties that are some of the poorest in NYS and not take a look at some of these contracts? Then again if a union does a good job negotiating, they should be given a pat on the back for doing their job. It is not the union’s fault that these benefits exist in this way.

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  42. So yesterday, BBC Newshour did a story about a debate as to whether UK schools should teach elementary school students about healthy body image. Today, they did a story about how a moronic UK bureaucrat said that a female Olympic heptathlete is fat. It’s really hard to imagine where kids are getting this insecurity about body image. I mean, the “fat” woman in question is only fit enough to compete in the Olympics in seven different sports.

    There are two absolute truths in education as I see them. a) Teachers in NYS are undercompensated compared to other professions that require similar credentials and b) property owners are way over taxed in NYS. You don’t have to be a Tea Partier to think property taxes are too high in this state. So when property taxpayers and teachers say they are being treated unfairly, guess what, they are both right.

    Property taxes are an inherently unequal way of funding. Schools in towns like Queensbury and Lake George, with its oodles of tourist attractions and strip malls, will always be able take in tons more revenue than towns like Crown Point or Warrensburg. As such, property taxes are a fundamentally unfair to fund something like education that is purported to be egalitarian and universal. Lord knows, state mandates are certainly universal. Mandated state and federal programs should be funded ENTIRELY by state and federal governments. Property taxes should only be used to fund optional programs that local schools voluntarily choose: extracurriculars, sports, AP programs, etc.

    These tensions between property taxpayers and teachers will NEVER go away under the present, dysfunctional funding structure. Until the structure is blown up, all we will be able to do is put band aids on flesh wounds.

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  43. myown says:

    In other states property taxes have been ruled an unconstitutional method of funding public schools. A similar case in NY was headed off by the parties agreeing to adjust state funding to compensate for the large disparities between the wealthy and poor district’s abilities to raise school funding through local property taxes. But it has not made a significant difference.

    We absolutely need to permanently end trying to fund public schools with via the local property tax system.

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  44. VBurnett says:

    Can I please ‘like’ Brian’s comment 5 times?

    “when property taxpayers and teachers say they are being treated unfairly, guess what, they are both right.

    Property taxes are an inherently unequal way of funding. ”

    This is the heart of the issue. Local taxpayers cannot afford to pay local teaching professionals the salaries that they deserve because the funding structure is unequal and is inherently discriminatory. It paupers our districts and neglects our students. We can argue about teacher compensation and tax rates and lack of educational opportunities until we are blue in the face and get absolutely nowhere unless and until we are willing as united taxpayers (not just a bunch of loosely organized parents, students and teachers) to take this battle straight to Governor Cuomo’s desk.

    I also must point out that singling out one ill-defined benefit from one district’s union negotiations in order to jump start “discussion” about teacher compensation packages across the region is rather poor, sensationalistic journalism on the part of the Post-Star and is a dis-service to all the citizens of the North Country. A well informed discussion about how other states fund education more equitably would do us a world of good. A little more pressure on law-makers who keep piling expensive mandates upon our small, impoverished districts without providing more funding to pay for them would be useful for all taxpayers. Casting a little more light on Governor Cuomo’s failure to comply for the past two years with previous court rulings in regards to funding education in rural and inner city districts would be very illuminating

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  45. VBurnett says:

    and if we’re really going to argue about teachers being allowed to accumulate sick days, folks should know a couple of things:

    Most districts have some sort of “accumulated sick day” benefit at retirement. It is often capped and usually is a matter of giving the teachers a small bonus as part of their retirement package that amounts to a percentage of $$ saved for each sick day not used. The money to pay for this benefit is built into the budget because each district plans for an average # of sick days per teacher and for each sick day not used, the school saves money by not having to hire a substitute.

    There’s a lot of pressure within districts for teachers to NOT use sick days because it creates havoc in the classroom, especially with large class sizes and/or kids with special needs in the class. Allowing teachers to accumulate a few sick days as a retirement perk is one way for districts to ‘compensate’ teachers for all the unpaid hours they put in throughout their careers and is a way to make showing up in the classroom more palatable when a teacher is feeling under the weather.

    If what the Glenns Falls Post Star reports of the Warrensburg district is true (that teachers are allowed to use a full year of sick days to retire at full pay a year early – which is highly doubtful, considering NYSUT’s contracts and retirement formulas.) it may have been a cost saving measure originally built into the contracts to move higher paid professionals out of the system a few years early and ultimately save some money for the district.

    These sort of retirement incentives come and go and seem to be more prevalent when educational funding is shaky. Discussing the benefit out of context is fun because tax payers can get all worked up about some ‘pampered teacher’ getting a full year’s paid vacation without understanding that the district may actually be saving several tens of thousands of dollars by being able to hire a new teacher in that position for less $$ and not having to pay into certain other funds for for the retiring, well established teacher. Districts don’t write these benefits into their contracts unless they are clearly beneficial to both the teachers and the district at large.

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  46. mervel says:

    That is all a fantasy.

    We fund local schools with a combination of property taxes and state aid. The largest hunk even with our high property taxes is state aid. This is not going to change. We can look for a better state aid formula but the idea that we are going to stop using property taxes to fund local education is not going to happen in our lifetimes.

    The answer is a serious look at large scale consolidation.

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