I have been conducting a community development and education research project in southeast Kentucky for nearly a year and have gained a deep respect for this region and its residents.
A few weeks ago I came across an opinion piece by Mr. Jim Waters, “End practice of using sick-day benefit to spike pensions,” published Tuesday, September 6, 2022 in the Times Tribune. I thought it important to get reaction from teachers, administrators, and taxpayers who I have met during my work to more fully understand Mr. Waters concerns.
As I examined this issue, I had conversations with more than 50 educators from multiple school districts and numerous community leaders with a vested interest in the education system.
The most concerning issue to everyone I spoke with that was brought up in the article was the suggestion that teachers are “gaming the system” at taxpayer expense. Every educator I’ve spoken to was offended by the implication that classroom teachers were involved in taking advantage of their own retirement system.
Educators shared several points that are well worth considering:
– Classroom teachers in Kentucky work a 187-day contract for which they are compensated based on a daily wage (they are not paid for a full year with summers off as some critics like to hint at). The salary range used in the article was from Louisville, teachers in this region of state don’t compare with the salaries in urban areas of the state.
– Classroom teachers (like most professionals) do have sick days in their contract.
– Many teachers have young children and/or their own health concerns that require them to use those sick days when necessary.
– Teachers understand that their presence in a school is critical for continuity of student learning and work hard not to take unnecessary sick days.
– Many teachers don’t have the time to study the components of the retirement system and only examine it as their retirement date becomes imminent.
– Most teachers do not retire with anywhere near 300 accumulated sick days.
– Based on my conversations, it does not seem that Kentucky teachers are gaming the system. Based on my observations, Kentucky teachers are committed educators working hard to improve the lives of children each and every day.
However, based on my interviews and inquiries, it does appear that this retirement system is being gamed – BUT not by Kentucky teachers.
The “gaming of the retirement system” is being led by education administrators in a number of different ways. Below are a few examples of how this is happening in plain sight.
Education Administrator contract length ranges from 200 days up to 240 days (that means average administrator contracts are at least two full months longer than a classroom teacher), and some upper-level administrators including superintendents are paid for 260 days. Administrator salaries are markedly higher than a classroom teacher with the same education level and experience.
Districts allow administrators to choose the additional days they work based on a July 1 – June 30 calendar. Administrators don’t have to take a sick or personal day because they can take a “non-contract” day and make their day up anytime between July 1 and June 30. One administrator stated, “I’ve been in administration for 14 years and I’ve never used a sick or personal day. I’ve used non-contract days.”
Another administrator stated that they were in a district where administrators were granted “annual leave days.” I asked for clarification. Administrators in certain districts are given 20 paid annual leave days in addition to sick and personal days. These annual days roll over to become sick days for the purpose of retirement. Teachers within the district are not granted paid annual leave days.
Education administrators have the free time to study the retirement system and intentionally plan their path toward an inflated retirement. They do this in collaboration with colleagues and even conduct workshops on the subject. They understand that retirement income is based on the three or five highest paid years of employment (depending on when they entered the system and how many years they are employed) and they ensure that they are compensated at as a high a rate possible for those final years.
Retired administrators re-enter the public education workforce and retirement system at a dramatically higher rate by percentage than classroom teachers. They continue to receive their retirement benefits AND draw a salary based on a daily wage threshold defined by KTRS. After five years, if they choose, they can retire a second time with a second retirement. Several of the educators that I interviewed stated that they personally knew administrators (mostly retired superintendents) working through local Educational Cooperatives and receiving retirement benefits well over $100,000 annually and working on a second retirement and making a salary of well over $100,000 annually. This is a glaring example of inflating retirement benefits and spiking pension(s) for a lifetime. In addition, these retirees are taking positions that emerging education leaders could fill. Emerging leaders are denied an opportunity because existing administrators have learned how to game the system and they have friends in administrative positions.
As we consider how to “fill these deep pension holes” and assure that sick leave days aren’t used to spike pensions for a lifetime, let’s look at education administrators (including superintendents) who use expanded non-contract days, paid “annual leave”, collegial influence and a second retirement to increase their compensation. We should not allow ourselves to be “gas-lighted” into thinking that hard-working classroom teachers are abusing a system intended to encourage their commitment to students.