In the 43 years Bill Meisch taught in the Rockwood School District, he rarely took a sick day.
Even so, at the start of a new school year, the district would add more sick leave — 10 days in most recent years. Those that went unused would accumulate with no limit, and when Meisch, 66, retired this year, he had accrued 471 days at a value of more than $100,600.
"It was there and I knew it, but I enjoyed where I was working. I was healthy," said Meisch, who taught music. Under district policy, the bulk of his sick pay benefit went to his retirement account. The rest was paid in a lump sum of $35,000.
Meisch's unusually long tenure with Rockwood schools was a major factor in his large payout, although two other teachers had accumulated values of $79,558 and $63,671 for unused sick days. The average takeaway was about $24,000.
In total, Rockwood spent $1.42 million to pay departing administrators and teachers this benefit during the last school year.
Those kinds of expenses are common for school districts across the region, even in recent post-recession years. Francis Howell has spent $447,200 during the last three years on unused sick day payouts, while Fox School District's total comes in at $397,135 for the same period.
Hazelwood spent nearly as much as Rockwood on a similar benefit during the 2009-10 school year — before pulling the plug.
"It's expensive. We couldn't afford it," said Diana Gulotta, a spokeswoman for Hazelwood.
But far more districts are sticking with their sick leave policies. And they're doing so at a time when finances are tight, with districts raising tax rates to make up for lost property tax revenue and stagnant state spending.
Sick day payouts are rare in the private sector, said Jeffrey Keefe, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied public vs. private employee costs for the Economic Policy Institute.
"The nasty part of this whole thing, as far as I'm concerned, is what happens at the end. You've got these odd situations where the employee never uses a sick day and it's the equivalent to winning the lottery," Keefe said. "You use them or lose them is basically the policy of the private sector."
Sick leave policies vary among districts, but paying out teachers and administrators for unused days at retirement and sometimes annually is a common thread, the Post-Dispatch has found.
Fort Zumwalt teachers and administrators get 11 sick days a year with unlimited accumulations. If an employee leaves the district before retirement, they are paid $45 a day for unused sick days. If a teacher or administrator is retiring, the rate goes up to $80 for unused days.
St. Louis Public Schools changed its policy in the 2009-10 school year. Teachers get nine days of paid time off, which they can use as sick days. Teachers are paid for any leftover days in December of the following year. They get half a day's pay for each. Those who had days accrued before the policy are paid at retirement for a maximum of 36 days each at 75 percent of pay.
Mehlville offers its teachers and administrators the option to be reimbursed for unused days as a credit toward health insurance when they retire.
Several education officials say creating incentives for collecting, rather than using, sick days is good for schools.
Most agree that the more days a quality teacher is in his or her classroom, the better the potential for learning, said William Rebore, chair of the educational leadership department at St. Louis University and a former superintendent. In most policies, the daily rate of the buyback is at or below what it would cost the district to pay a substitute for a school day.
"It is a perk," Rebore said. "But the reasoning behind it is that it's advantageous to keep the teachers in the classroom. Certainly, you have to weigh that with the cost."
But that's also assuming a teacher is healthy enough to come to work.
"If you feel bad and you come to work, you're not going to be as good," Rebore said.
It's not just teachers who cash in unused leave days at retirement.
Former Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Jeff Spiegel, who retired this summer after 35 years in the district, walked away with a total of $88,731 for unused vacation and sick leave. The district paid him $39,888 on July 20 for unused sick leave days at a rate of $814 a day, which was based on his final salary.
Spiegel banked a total of 60 days of vacation paid out at the same rate for a total of $48,843 on June 30.
The terms of Spiegel's payoff were set in his negotiated contract. The district's policies for most employees have more limits. Even so, sick pay buybacks for teachers and administrators cost the Ferguson-Florissant district about $506,800 in the last school year.
Missouri law does not require districts to give teachers a certain number of sick or vacation days, and the Missouri School Boards' Association does not offer districts a standard policy on the issue. In Illinois, districts must give teachers a minimum of 10 sick days a year.
But not all districts offer sick day payouts.
Under Parkway School District's policies, for example, sick days are granted only as needed and cannot be accumulated. Teachers do not receive vacation days, and administrators cannot be paid for any unused vacation days when they leave the district or retire.
The need to cut the budget made Hazelwood officials take a look at the cost of unused sick pay buybacks in the district — in the last five years it topped out at nearly $2.4 million in 2006-07. In 2009-10, it cost $1.35 million. After that year, the district discontinued the buybacks at retirement. It had already stopped allowing employees to 'sell back" their unused sick days on a yearly basis in 2008-2009.
But teachers say when they don't use sick days, it helps the district and students.
"The classroom teacher is the one who knows the students. They are very familiar with the individual student, and they know how to meet the needs of that student," said Suzanne Dotta, president of the Rockwood National Education Association. "A substitute comes into that room not knowing those students, and where the buttons are to push that student forward."
In the St. Louis area, substitutes make about $90 a day. Districts pay about $150 a day for long-term assignments, such as covering for a teacher on maternity leave.
Rockwood's policy paid out $123 to $246 for each unused sick day last year to retirees with at least five years in the district. The amount increases if a teacher or administrator has more than 101 or 151 days, and is calculated using a first-year teacher's salary.
Last year, the district cut $5.3 million to balance its 2011-12 budget, partly through staff reductions. The district raised tuition for kindergarten, as well as high school parking fees and admission to sporting events.
Like Hazelwood, budget pressures could force other districts to rethink policies on sick leave buybacks.
In Rockwood, the unused sick leave policy is included in the current teacher's union contract with the district, which expires June 30.
Administrators, like teachers, say they see value in the policy.
The benefit can encourage teachers to retire when they first become eligible, said Kelvin McMillin, Rockwood's assistant superintendent for human resources. The savings from replacing that teacher with one on a lesser salary helps pay for the benefit, he said.
Administrators also say it has contributed to teacher retention. Rockwood's turnover rate is about 5 percent annually, compared to a national average of about 17 percent in recent years.
"We're hiring really good teachers," McMillin said. "And we're keeping them here until they retire."