MEDIA WATCH: Just another Sun-Times teacher bashing hatchet job... How many ways did the BGA/ 'Sun-Times' get the sick pay story wrong? Too many to count...

Although the Chicago Sun-Times has long been the source of hatchet jobs on CPS teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union for decades (Substance had a long-term run-in with Ray Coffey years ago, because he was taking leaks directly from Paul Vallas to slime those who disagreed with Vallas's policies; Mary Mitchell's craven cheerleading for corporate "school reform" has been legendary since before Coffey died and will soon reach its 20th anniversary), the recent attempt by the Sun-Times to make (another) big deal out of the fact that Chicago teachers and principals are eligible to cash out unused sick days (and, in the case of some school workers, vacation days) will make an interesting study in journalistic "ethics" for years to come. The Sun-Times story, which screamed out to the public on February 2, 2012, basically claimed that the sick day payout that teachers and principals have been receiving at the time of retirement (for most) was somehow wrong. That scream then began echoing through talk radio as if there were something to scream about (most notably from WLS, but also others).

While it's still not clear that the Sun-Times actually reported the story that it published, it's certainly clear that the Sun-Times made no attempt to put the story in either historical or financial context. To read the Sun-Times story, the average reader would have believed that this huge burden on the taxpayers had been some secret plot to take an additional millions from the schools, when in fact that right to cash out sick days, for teachers and principals, had been a longstanding policy that was, in fact, for decades viewed as a sound public policy. If teachers and principals were able to accumulate sick days towards the end of their careers, they would then not utilize as many of them during the career. That maintained continuity of teaching in the classrooms (fewer substitute teacher days) and encouraged teachers to remain in the profession long enough to qualify for the payout.

The Chicago Board of Education has budgeted for this in its annual budget since before anyone known to this reporter remembers (and this reporter has been studying CPS budgets for 33 years, since the financial "crisis" of 1979 which resulted in the payless Christmas holiday of 1979). Every year, CPS accounts for this projected expense and every year, CPS reports that expense in its annual Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (the CAFR). Had the Sun-Times (or whomever wrote the story and edited it) bother to check some of the financials, the reporters would have read the following in the CAFR for FT 2011, which was presented to the Board by management and its auditors in December 2011.

"NOTE 11. OTHER BENEFITS AND CLAIMS. The following is a summary of changes to other long-term liabilities ($000’s).

[Reporter's Note: Balance June 30, 2010 (financial details follow in this space), but the narrative discloses the policy and explains it...]:

"CPS provides sick pay benefits for substantially all of its employees. Eligible employees can accumulate a maximum of 320 days. If an employee either reaches age 65; has a minimum of 20 years of service at the time of resignation or retirement, or dies, the employee is entitled to receive, as additional cash compensation, all or a portion of their accumulated sick leave days. The CPS budgets an amount each year in the General Operating Fund for these estimated payments to employees terminated in the current fiscal year.

"Vacation Pay Benefits

"For eligible employees, the maximum number of accumulated unused vacation days permitted is 40 days for those employees with up to 10 years of service; 53 days for those with 11 to 20 years of service; and 66 days for those with more than 20 years of service. Eligible employees are entitled to receive 100% of accumulated vacation days at their current salary rate. These amounts will be liquidated from the General Operating Fund..."

The Sun-Times (or whoever reported that screamer) could also have learned some of the differentiations within the policy. Teachers are treated differently from administrators. Most teachers cannot accumulate "vacation" pay.

But the Sun-Times didn't bother to report the story, in its complexity, in context, because the Sun-Times story was the kind of hatchet job that the Sun-Times has been specializing in since it became one of the central Chicago cheerleaders for corporate "school reform" and, over the past year, for the attack dog policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I have personally covered just about every budget hearing on the CPS proposed budget for the past ten or more years. Through June 2006, those hearings took place in June. Since then, those hearings took place in August.

The Sun-Times regularly avoids those hearings, and the Sun-Times never takes the time to actually report on the budget itself.

The current flap over the sick days policy is just another example of the kind of reporting that makes Chicago "journalism" in the 21st Century such a challenge to support, even for a member of the Headline Club.

Garbage in.

Garbage out.


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