A few years into John Butts' superintendent job in DuPage's Lake Park High School District 108, a lucrative perk showed up in his contract: 300 sick days.
In an amendment to his contract, the school board signed off on 150 sick days in 2006-07 — a dramatic increase from Butts' usual 15 a year — and another 150 sick days for 2007-08.
But in the public sector, sick days can accumulate into the hundreds — though that doesn't mean government employees are extraordinarily sickly.
It means they can cash in unused sick days for public dollars or use leftover days to add to their years of retirement credit, which bumps up their taxpayer-subsidized pensions. Sick-day payouts and credits also are typical elements of severance agreements for public school superintendents who leave their contracts early, the Tribune found.
Butts left Lake Park before his contract ended and is now superintendent in Will County's Reed-Custer district. He could not be reached for comment.
Illinois law requires districts to grant educators at least 10 sick days a year at full pay. A maximum of 340 unused sick days can be converted to two years of service credit toward retirement in the suburban and downstate Teachers' Retirement System.
The General Assembly repeatedly has changed the law to expand use of unused sick time for retirement. In 1972, educators could get credit for half a year of unused sick days. That jumped to a whole year beginning in 1984, and two years starting in 2003.
"It's something we have to do under the law," said David Urbanek, a spokesman for the Teachers' Retirement System.
Not all states are as generous. In New York's Teachers' Retirement System, sick days cannot be converted into retirement credit, a spokesman said. However, one exception allows a small number of veteran teachers to cash in sick time that can be used in pension calculations.
Texas teachers don't get automatic retirement credit for unused sick leave but can buy up to a year of credit if they have enough banked sick days. California educators can use sick leave to add to their retirement service, but they can't cash out unused days.
Big sick-day payouts have become controversial, with New Jersey's governor pushing to cut back on the practice. "Sick days are for when you're sick … not for deferred compensation," said Adam Bauer, spokesman for state Senate Republicans.
Gary Catalani, former superintendent of Wheaton's District 200, cashed in $288,230 for 185 unused sick days, among other payments, when he left in 2007. He also used 140.5 unused sick days toward retirement, according to records.
At least three superintendents in Round Lake District 116 got 150 to 180 sick days at the start of their contracts, records show.
James Tenbusch got 150 sick days when he started his job as chief educational officer in Round Lake in 2009-10. He served only a year and is now a superintendent in Michigan.
Michael Melbinger, a Chicago attorney and executive compensation expert, noted that in the private sector, CEOs can get severance packages that include cash and stock options. But the idea of accumulating and cashing in unused sick days is "totally unheard of."