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Sick-pay deals are not healthy

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Up until a few years ago, Lois Scarlato, then an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, was making very good money. With more than 30 years experience, Scarlato was at the top of the teacher pay chart and according to state records, earned $190,683 in 2016-2017, and $201,614 in 2017-2018.

But in the 2018-2019 school year Scarlato's total compensation was a stunning $478,294 (although that will be paid out over three years), making her the second-highest earner among educators in the state. The big bump came courtesy of Scarlato's retirement, and a sick-day accrual and termination-pay policy in Central Islip that places an unjustifiable burden on taxpayers and would be foreign to almost anyone working in the private sector.

The sick-pay policies outlined in the Central Islip teachers contract that runs from 2017-2018 through 2024-2025 include, for a 182-day school year:

  • Sick leave of 15 days per year, which can accrue indefinitely if unused.
  • Five personal leave days each year, accruing as sick days if unused.
  • Five "bedside care days" per year, ostensibly for caring for loved ones but with no explanation or proof required to take them, accruing as sick days if unused.
  • Three bereavement days, to be used when a close relative dies, which do not accrue, with proof of death needed.

Typically, a private-sector worker with 10 paid holidays each year and two weeks vacation works 240 days a year. Central Islip teachers who take advantage of all available paid leave properly could earn their full salaries and work just over 150 days.

Or they could bank them for a big payday when they leave, which is mostly what they do. Teachers also cash out a maximum of five such days each year for additional pay, once they've accrued 350. For a teacher like Scarlato with more than 30 years in the district and a master's degree, that comes out to about $1,100 a day.

In general, the contract allows retiring teachers to cash out a maximum of 180 days, but the contract included an exception, a maximum cash-out of 226 days in the 2018-2019 school year. With that generous window, Central Islip boasted nine of the top 10 public employee earners statewide last year, including termination pay, and 23 of the Top 100 the same year.

School-district leave, accrual and termination policies vary across Long Island, with Central Islip's on the generous side, but many others have similar taxpayer-abusive formulas. But the fairest system, practiced in Syosset and several other districts on the North Shore and across the state, guarantees no specific number of sick days but pays teachers when they need to be out because they are sick.

That's also considered by many experts to be the best practice in the private sector.

Teachers do a difficult and important job, and they deserve fair compensation. But they don't deserve huge retirement paydays for simply showing up to work. Long Islanders love their schools, but they don't like being taken advantage of, and they won't tolerate it forever.

— The editorial board