Jean-Claude Brizard on New CPS Policies

Chicago Public Schools is cracking down on the $265 million in sick-day and vacation payouts its given departing employees since 2006. This, according to a Better Government Association analysis that revealed some CPS employees received payouts higher than their departing salaries. How to solve the problem? Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to talk about that -- and more.

Chicago Tonight spoke with Patrick Rehkamp, reporter and senior investigator with Better Government Association, about how the investigation came about and the policy prescriptions as a result.

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What inspired your investigation?

We knew CPS had a policy where they paid out unused sick time upon departure. We’d see clips on certain individuals that had been done five or six years ago, when principals left and stuff like that. We didn’t know what the cumulative effect on this was, or what dollar amount was going out the door.

How did it start?

It literally started off with a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request, in which we requested payouts for unused sick times and vacation for departed employees. It took CPS a while, but when I finally got the data back, we saw that over the six-year span, the numbers were upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Your investigation has inspired some policy changes that have made the news as of late.

We knew right before the story ran [that something would happen]. I did a separate story on Wayne Watson, former chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, who had a similar package in being paid for unused sick times. He’s been gone three years and getting $100,000 this year and next. When the mayor’s office read that, they knew it was out of line, so they asked them to stop paying. We knew there was something going on and it was likely that it was going to happen.

What about the Mayor Emanuel’s reaction in this case?

The mayor was pretty vocal about this in that the press office said they don’t find it acceptable. They said it doesn’t happen in the private sector, it doesn’t happen to Chicago Housing Authority employees, Chicago Transit Authorities employees, or in city or sister agencies as well.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is on our show to talk about all this tonight. What do you think his involvement is?

He’s on the front lines when it comes to CPS and certainly has the authority to help craft and change the policies, but it’s hard to tell exactly what his role is and if it’s coming from him or the Mayor.

So what is Mayor Emanuel’s influence in this?

It’s hard to say. What I can say is that CPS wasn’t real forthcoming with a lot of answers during this story. So it’s hard to tell exactly what the interaction between City Hall and CPS is on a whole—and especially in this issue.

Do you think these new proposed policies are fair?

This is something we definitely feel is the right move. [The previous policies] CPS just can’t afford. And we’re not anti-teacher or anti-union. Unionized and non-union people were getting this. This wasn’t specific to any set of employees. This is an organization that has serious budget problems. They canceled raises, increased taxes; there have been layoffs and issues with school closings. The system can better find a way to use their money than giving it to employees walking out the door.

Some were getting payouts larger than their actual departing salary. A Chicago Tribune Op-Ed demanded that former CPS CEO Arne Duncan—now Secretary of Education—return the payout. Is that even possible?

I haven’t heard from anybody, whether it’s CPS or anyone else involved, that they’re going to be able to get money from people it’s already been paid to.

There are two issues at play here: vacation time and sick time. How are they different ethically?

Sick time is for when you’re sick – it’s sort of in the words, I think. Vacation time is for when you go off and take personal time to travel, and unwind and come back refreshed. Sick time is designed for when you’re ill. It’s hard to tell the level of abuse that’s going on in this. We didn’t focus on isolated instances.

Is anything else wrong with the policies?

There certainly was or is an issue because it’s tens of millions of dollars annually going to employees who are leaving. Yes, they’ve worked hard and done their time, but they’ll also get decent pensions when they leave. To get this perk that doesn’t happen elsewhere doesn’t fiscally make sense. What the new policy is, we still don’t know yet exactly what’s going to happen. They released press releases to change it for non-unionized employees as soon as possible. What the changes are going to be and what’s going to happen with unionized employees is something that comes later.

It should be clear we’re not against teachers and not against unions; we’re out there trying to eliminate waste, corruption, fraud and excessive types of payment with any level of government in Illinois.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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