State commission scrutinizes retirement benefits, paid leave for teachers serving as union officials

A state commission on school spending scrutinized paid leave for teachers serving as union officials and retirement benefits that districts offer beyond the state’s pension plan at its Friday meeting in Topeka.

The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission will offer recommendations to the Legislature in January on how education funding can be used more effectively to benefit students.

The commission sent surveys to all 286 school districts in the state requesting information on employee benefits and teachers serving as union officials, but received replies from just 206 districts.

Dave Trabert, the commission member who requested the survey be sent, was upset that 80 districts had not responded and said that perhaps an open records request would be in order.

One of the commission members, Bev Mortimer, the superintendent for the Concordia school district, said that her district was one of the districts that did not send a response because she was unsure of what the intent behind the inquiry was.

Former state Sen. Janis Lee, another commission member, said it was offensive that the surveys had been sent out on behalf of the entire commission.

Sam Williams, the chair, said that all members of the commission were allowed to request any information they like as part of the commission’s task of studying schools.

Trabert defended the information as being relevant to policymakers and the commission’s charge of identifying efficiencies in school spending.

Twelve school districts that responded said employees that serve as union officials receive compensation while on leave. Two of the districts pay full salary to teachers on leave to serve as union officials.

“If they’re not educating students, if they’re conducting union business, that doesn’t seem to be something taxpayers should be paying for,” said Trabert, who is president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank based in Wichita. “That’s taking money out of the classroom.”

Diane Gjerstad, a spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, said the district does pay employees on leave to work as union officials, but it is reimbursed for that pay by the teachers union.

The survey showed that 60 districts offer retirement benefits, such as 403(b) plans and annuities, to employees in addition to the state’s pension plan. Another three offer these benefits only to administrators.

The survey also showed that 131 districts pay employees for unused sick leave upon retirement or termination. Trabert called these very lucrative benefits.

The Wichita school district does not offer a 403(b) or annuity plan. It does pay retirees for unused sick leave, but at a reduced rate, Gjerstad said.

Ken Thiessen, the principal of Wichita East High School, who serves on the commission, said that these statistics by themselves don’t offer a complete picture of how teachers are being compensated and that these benefits are part of their compensation package.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the agreements made between local school boards and unions vary by each district. He said in some districts teachers negotiate for additional retirement benefits, while other district might put that money toward salary.

He said Trabert made a wrong assumption in looking at these benefits as extra compensation.

“The school board says, ‘Here’s how much money we have. What do you like us to do with it?’ ” said Desetti, who observed the meeting. “It’s not a matter of there’s this pile of money and the district is saying, ‘Well, let’s just spend it on extra benefits here.’

“No, there’s a decision made about the pot of money and how we’re going to distribute it. It’s a compensation package. It is not separate from salary.”

Trabert also scrutinized the money districts pay the Kansas Department of Education for professional development training that educators engage in during the school year. The amount, from the districts responding to the survey, added up to more than $254,000, which comes out to an average of $1,233 a district.

“I would think that would be an obligation of an agency, not a moneymaker,” Trabert said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing professional development, but if that’s something the department can provide, that’s money that gets freed up to go into the classroom.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.