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posted: 3/26/2013 10:21 AM

Feeling ill about excessive sick leave

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

When publications come out with lists of the best places to work, it's a wonder Warren Township High School District 121 isn't mentioned.

After all, in 2009, it gave now-retired Superintendent Phil Sobocinski a final three-year contract that included 6 percent annual pay hikes, a $500 monthly travel allowance, 20 days of yearly vacation and a $10,000 bonus if he stayed until his retirement date. Documents show his reported salary was $245,000 when he retired in July 2012. They also gave him 200 sick days.

That's right, 200.

Because that sick time went unused and was converted into cash credit when Sobocinski retired, taxpayers are on the hook for more than $52,000 for extra pension costs assessed by the Teachers' Retirement System. It's another example of overly generous taxpayer-funded final contracts for school administrators that have been common in suburban school districts for years.

They create pension millionaires out of public school retirees, particularly at a time when that's not sustainable in Illinois. It's further evidence why the system must be reformed.

State law makes local districts pay extra pension costs for end-of-career raises topping 6 percent. Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 is among those penalized for padding pensions by handing out substantial raises to administrators in their last few years before retirement. The most notable were three successive 22 percent raises for District 54 Assistant Superintendent Mohsin Dada that boosted his pay to $341,747 the year before he retired in 2011.

When it comes to bolstering pensions, sick leave is just a different way to skin the cat -- or, perhaps a more appropriate image in such cases, to feed the cat and an already fat one at that.

Daily Herald staff writer Bob Susnjara found District 121 wasn't the only Illinois school district to receive a TRS bill for the "excessive sick leave" reward. At least 431 bills were sent to school districts last year, with an average tab of $3,340.

The bill sent to District 121 last August for Sobocinski's sick-leave credit was the highest in the state in 2012.

In offering the generous sick leave, District 121 officials were less concerned about Sobocinski's health than they were about crafting a final package lucrative enough so he wouldn't leave.

Board President John Anderson said officials knew there was a chance it would come at an extra cost to the district. He said the board stands behind the deal for a superintendent who proved his worth in many ways.

Critics of the deal questioned why a retirement-age Sobocinski would leave for another job -- and, aside from that question, let's be real, he had to be replaced sometime.

While we will never know what would have happened if Sobocinski's contract included a reasonable number of sick days, taxpayers can't be faulted if they feel ill over getting stuck with the bill.

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