Elizabeth Palmer is missing one D.C. schools paycheck and was shortchanged on several others. She had to borrow from her parents to pay her car insurance and student loans.
Gloria Reaves is afraid to call her bank to see how many automatic payments bounced when her last paycheck did not arrive. Laureen Smith-Butler got her Nov. 1 check a week late, with the help of her union. By that time, she had to pay overdue fees on several bills.
They were among about 300 District teachers and others who demonstrated outside D.C. financial control board headquarters yesterday to protest a new city payroll system that has left thousands of school employees with missing or inaccurate paychecks over the last six weeks.
"This is demoralizing. You work, and you expect to get paid," said Reaves, a librarian at Amidon Elementary School. "After a while, you owe more for your bounced checks than you have in your account."
The payroll crisis prompted a three-hour meeting Monday of city officials, including control board Vice Chairman Constance B. Newman, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt and Washington Teachers' Union president Barbara Bullock.
Holt agreed to create an emergency operation to pay school employees who report a problem by the close of business the next day. She also has hired a new project manager to take over implementation of the payroll system and six contract employees to examine paychecks for accuracy before they are issued.
The emergency effort will be in place by Dec. 1, the next payday for the system's 6,000 teachers. An additional 4,300 employees will be paid the following Friday.
"There's a total commitment to fix this," said Newman, who plans to visit payroll offices next week to see that problems are being corrected.
But Reaves was skeptical, noting that payroll officials have promised and failed three times to issue her missing Nov. 16 paycheck within 48 hours. "I don't know what they can do in 24 hours that they can't do in 48," she said.
The new system has left thousands without paychecks and miscalculated the salaries, taxes, sick leave or deductions of many others. Some teachers were paid correctly in October but missed a check in November. A few have received "outrageously large" paychecks--$65,489.20, instead of $818.64, in one case--according to information submitted to the D.C. Council education committee yesterday.
All first- and second-year teachers are being paid too little, Bullock said. Many teachers have not been paid extra stipends they earn for coaching or tutoring--a problem city finance officials identified weeks ago but have not fixed. Bullock estimated that a handful of teachers may have already quit in frustration, but she was unable to identify any by name.
The school system has struggled for years with payroll problems because of poorly kept records and an antiquated computer system, issuing several hundred handwritten "supplemental" checks each month to employees who were paid too little or not at all.
But the problem has grown worse since school employees joined a new citywide payroll system Oct. 1.
Newman and city finance officials say the difficulties stem from the incredible complexities of the school system's payroll--with its many part-time or partial-year employees, summer school stipends, coaching and tutoring and other special situations.
School officials warned last year that those issues warranted a different payroll approach for them, but they were overruled by control board officials eager to put all city workers on the same system.
The payroll problem is just one of several ongoing technological troubles that undermine Ackerman's claims of reforming the schools. She rightly points out that she has no direct control over payroll issues, which were transferred to the city finance office before her arrival because of chronic mismanagement.
"Give me the authority to run the school system, and then you can hold me accountable," Ackerman said.
But she does bear responsibility for another problem, last week's mistakes in distributing first-term report cards. A variety of computer and human errors led to them arriving late at several schools or with the wrong grades or courses listed. A week later, officials still cannot say how widespread the problem was.
At Janney Elementary School, report cards arrived at the school with one side blank. At Coolidge High School, a student showed his tutor an error-riddled report card, with no information about absences or tardies and no listing of credits taken and passed to date, the tutor said. The card did not show two of the young man's classes and wrongly said he was failing another.
"It was really sad and frustrating to see all those mistakes," said the tutor, Stephanie Snow. "It signaled to me a real lack of respect."