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I-Team: Supposedly Strapped For Cash Philadelphia School District Paying Out Big Checks To Workers

By Ben Simmoneau

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The School District of Philadelphia is strapped for cash, yet the CBS 3 I-Team found it is spending tens of millions of dollars a year – your tax money – on a big perk payout: letting workers cash in on unused vacation, personal and sick days.

Even the superintendent seemed stunned when we told him about some of the six-figure checks.

Records obtained by the I-Team show the district has paid more than $87 million just since 2010 for unused personal, vacation and sick time when employees retire. Thirty-five employees collected six-figure payouts, even as the district has struggled with enormous deficits. The biggest single check: $161,840.

District employees can save personal and sick time with no limits. Principals can also bank 44 vacation days. Union contracts require employees be paid for that time.

Sick days are paid at 25 percent of an employee's daily rate, but personal and vacation time is paid out in full, and at an employee's final salary – not the salary when the days were earned – which means employees actually make money by banking the time.

And some cash out hundreds of days.

That big check for $161,840 went to the former principal of Central High, Sheldon Pavel, who cashed in 29 vacation days, 148 personal days and 363 sick days. He chose not to talk with us. Only two retirees would.

"I think it's a bonus," said the top teacher on the list, who asked us not to show her face. She collected $130,530 but says it's part of her compensation. "If you're willing to come to school every day, life in some of the city schools is not very pleasant."

And some people we spoke with agree they are entitled to it.

"That's the money you earned over time, so you can't get penalized for something you didn't take off," said one man who shared his opinion with the I-Team.

Ernestine Caldwell is a retired principal who worked three decades for the school district and rarely took a sick day. She cashed out $149,000 but agreed to speak on-camera with the I-Team. Caldwell says many educators feel they must go to work because many substitutes aren't qualified.

"In many instances, some of them are glorified babysitters," she said. "Many administrators and many teachers that I know never took off time. They recognized that their services were needed in the building. And in taking off time, you would find that things would not run as smoothly as you wanted."

"Taxpayers should be appalled and outraged," said Simon Campbell, a school board member in Bucks County's Pennsbury School District. He has been critical of benefits like these paid by districts across the region.

"The school officials are guilty for sitting down with the unions and agreeing to this," Campbell said. "It is just a misuse of public money."

Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Vereb agrees.

The School District of Philadelphia is "begging the state for more money, they're shutting schools down," Rep. Vereb said. "That's $87.5 million that kids aren't seeing in their classrooms."

The district ignored our request for an interview, so we approached new superintendent William Hite at a community meeting. He seemed stunned by the amount of money.

"That is a tremendous amount of money," Dr. Hite said. "We have to look at that just as we look at everything else. Naturally, that's a part of current contractual agreements and so we would have to look at those to determine whether or not we are even able to discontinue that payment."

Contracts for both the teachers' and principals' unions expire this summer.

The I-Team also checked to see how much the City of Philadelphia is paying its retirees for unused sick, vacation and personal time. It's also a lot of money but not nearly as much: about $32 million over the same three-year period.

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