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Teacher Payroll Fiasco Questioned

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Last month, the Springfield School Department announced some embarrassing news: due to a payroll error, about 1,400 city teachers had been receiving more money than they were due in their paychecks. The overpayments, which stretched back to September, totaled about $1.2 million.

The announcement sparked a number of questions, some of them rooted in frustration and disbelief. Will the city recoup the money? (Yes, the teachers' union and school officials are figuring out a repayment plan.) Didn't the teachers notice their paychecks were fatter than they were supposed to be and question the amounts? (Many did, responded union head Tim Collins, but when they called the payroll department to inquire they were told there was no error.)

And finally, how did the error happen, why did it drag on for so long—and what will happen to the person or people responsible? Superintendent Alan Ingram provided an answer to that last question—sort of.

Ingram recently issued a press release saying that the responsible party or parties had been identified and disciplined. But, citing state law that keeps disciplinary matters confidential, he declined to name names or describe the punishment. "Due to statutory exemptions under Massachusetts General Law, I cannot disclose specific references concerning this disciplinary matter, but I will say that we made an aggressive investigation and traced back every step involved in the calculation of teacher payroll to pinpoint where the error occurred," the statement said. "Those responsible for the mistake have been held accountable for it."

Ingram's statement has been less than satisfactory to some in the city—including School Committee member Antonette Pepe, who is considering running for mayor this fall. In response to the superintendent's statement, Pepe released her own press release asking a number of questions about how the review was conducted, and why she and other School Committee members have been largely kept in the dark about its details.

"Why was the School Committee not informed of the resolution regarding accountability and procedures to eliminate a recurrence of such a mistake?" Pepe asked. "The public and the School Committee should have knowledge of how the investigation was done, how the conclusion was made, and most importantly were the right employee(s) accused or is it the fox watching the hen house? The public as well as the teachers have a right to know what disciplinary action is being taken on the person(s) that committed the $1.2 million error."

Prior to her election to the School Committee, Pepe worked as a paraprofessional in the city schools, and spent years as head of the paraprofessionals' union. In that role, she was a fierce defender of her members' rights, but also insisted that she would not protect those who behaved unprofessionally or did their jobs poorly. That sensibility is reflected in her insistence now that the employee or employees responsible for the payroll mess don't deserve the protection of confidentiality.

"The taxpayers as well as myself cannot understand why the law protects employees that work in the public sector," she said. "If an individual working in the private sector makes a major mistake or breaks the law, no secrets are kept. The members of the School Committee should have a right to the information. They need to know if the employee(s) had problems in the past. School Committee [members] who vote on the district's budget must be assured that competent people prepare and implement the budget."

Pepe ended her statement with a dig at the climate in City Hall, pondering, "I have to wonder how many cover-ups there are in this type of government."

Late last week, the city announced that an undisclosed number of employees had been disciplined over "financial irregularities" at Putnam Vocational Technical High School, discovered when a new principal took over last fall. "I can report that appropriate administrative actions were taken for the employees in question, but once again I am prohibited from discussing the specifics of those actions publicly according to state law," Ingram said in a statement.

The City Council's audit committee has promised to release a public report on the ongoing investigation by month's end.

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