D.C. schools need checks for checks (CAPPS)

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D.C. schools need checks for checks By Rebecca Charry THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The hefty paychecks mistakenly sent by the District of Columbia school system to a teacher who doesn't work for city schools add to a long list of payroll troubles that have yet to be corrected.

D.C. schools for several years have failed to pay some teachers on time and in proper amounts. School officials in 1998 had to set up a hot line for calls from angry, underpaid teachers.

Though school administrators last year replaced their 1960s-era computerized payroll system, the new one is not bug free. More than 1,000 teachers were underpaid or paid late in November, and union officials say many have yet to receive all the back pay owed to them. Barbara Bullock, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said she was astonished to read yesterday in The Washington Times that Fairfax County, Va., teacher Robert Stewart has received almost $2,000 in payroll checks from the D.C. school system.

"I just don't understand how you could get a check when you never worked in the system and live in Philadelphia," Ms. Bullock said, referring to Mr. Stewart's previous address, where the paychecks were sent. "I can't get checks for teachers who live here in Washington." And that's not all. Mr. Stewart, 27, was paid at a rate amounting to an annual salary of $318,240 more than twice the highest salary paid to any city employee, much less a young teacher. Mr. Stewart, who now lives in Springfield, Va., applied for a teaching job in the District last year when he lived in Philadelphia. He turned down the D.C. offer, accepting a job in Fairfax County but has received D.C. paychecks totaling nearly $2,000 and a 1999 W-2 tax form from the District.

He has tried in vain to return the checks and clear his tax obligations. Ms. Bullock said she is still trying to sort out back-pay issues and correct mistakes on hundreds of pay stubs and tax forms for D.C. teachers. School officials blamed those problems on the new computer system, known as CAPPS, which was quickly installed last year under the threat of year-2000 computer problems. But D.C. officials say Mr. Stewart's case is unrelated to the problems with the new payroll system.

Mr. Stewart's erroneous paychecks and tax form were generated by three payroll employees who were fired three weeks ago, said Donald Rickford, chief financial officer for D.C. schools.

Mr. Rickford, however, could not explain how a teacher who never showed up for work and never filled out a time sheet could have generated a paycheck. Nor could he explain why Mr. Stewart was being paid at a rate of $153 an hour.

Mr. Rickford said he didn't know how many similar problems may exist in the system but vowed that an internal audit now under way would reveal any additional problems. "Wherever this investigation leads us, we are going to follow," he said.

"We don't know where the outside parameters are yet," said Lucy Murray, spokeswoman for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Valerie A. Holt, whose office was called in to assist with the investigation.

Mr. Rickford said two payroll technicians and their supervisor were fired Feb. 4 after a routine examination of their work revealed serious problems. That review was one of several new procedures instituted in recent months in response to continuing problems. Six months ago, those three employees might not have been caught, Mrs. Murray said.

"We have more aggressive reviews by people higher up in the system," Mr. Rickford said. "In the case of these three employees, we immediately terminated their access to the computer system and recovered all their work papers."

The three employees also were responsible for errors that threatened to delay recent paychecks for teachers at 56 schools and administrators, including School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks and Mr. Rickford himself.

Those mistakes were discovered just hours before the cutoff deadline and the checks were issued without incident, Mr. Rickford said, adding that he is not sure of the extent of the damage that might have been done by the fired workers.

Mr. Rickford said the forms Mr. Stewart filled out at a job fair in August constituted a contract and an oath of office. Yet he could not explain why a payroll account was activated after Mr. Stewart failed to show up at work.

Mr. Stewart said he accepted a job with Fairfax County after attending the job fair and, because he could not get a person on the phone, left a voice-mail message with city school officials saying he was no longer available. Mr. Stewart noted that the contract he signed stipulated that the agreement would be voided if he accepted a teaching job elsewhere or if he failed to show up at work.

Mr. Rickford said a corrected 1999 W-2 tax form was to be issued last night and mailed to Mr. Stewart. Stop-payment orders also were issued yesterday on the two checks still in Mr. Stewart's possession, he added. A third check already has been returned.

Mr. Rickford said he would gurantee to Mr. Stewart that the checks he received this year would not generate a 2000 W-2 form. "We're happy that things seem to be moving forward, but it's a shame it took so much publicity to get them to correct it," said Mr. Stewart's wife, Tara. "When I get the corrected W-2, then I'll believe it."

As of press time, Mrs. Stewart said neither she nor her husband had been contacted by D.C. officials.


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