Originally created 07/11/97

Richmond Schools overpaid substitutes $96,000



A "communications problem" led to Richmond County schools overpaying 39 substitutes at least $96,000 since 1993, but retired teachers who got the extra money are responsible for paying taxpayers back, Superintendent Charles Larke said Thursday.

Dr. Larke said he'll soon write letters to the overpaid substitutes, asking them to meet with him and Controller Gene Spires "and work out a method for them to pay what they were overpaid."

Not a chance, several of those teachers said Thursday when told of the idea.

"You've got to be joking," said John Cummings, who, according to a school system internal audit, was overpaid $3,511.32 for working as a substitute during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 school terms. "How is it he's going to recover money from teachers who spent (it) two years ago or so?"

The system's original audit puts the total overpayments at $149,895.43, but a re-check of the figures excludes some substitutes who apparently were correctly paid and lowers the number to $96,136.96, Dr. Larke said.

No individual school employee is to blame for the massive overpayments, two separate investigations - by the school police force and the state school ethics watchdog, the Professional Practices Commission - conclude. No employee has been disciplined and no punishments are pending against anyone, Dr. Larke said.

"I don't see anything where someone was trying to help a friend, or (anything) race-based," Dr. Larke said. "I just say that it's a communications problem."

That explanation is not good enough for several Richmond County school trustees, who haven't been briefed on the completed investigations although the report came back from the PPC on June 14. Notifying the trustees is "in the works," school attorney Pete Fletcher said.

"That's outrageous," said trustee Johnnie Jackson, who first alerted the system's personnel department that some substitutes were being overpaid.

"I couldn't be satisfied with that," said Adna Stein, school board president. "That's public money that got away."

How the money got away is a complicated mix of paperwork, tradition and, Dr. Larke says, word-of-mouth between retired teachers.

Back in the early 1980s, the school system began requiring an affidavit from retired teachers who wanted to substitute, which says the teacher will be paid a daily rate based on their teaching certificates. That amount is usually double the rate paid to regular substitutes. In education lingo, that's called being paid on your certificate. The affidavit also lets the school system off the legal hook if retirees earn too much money subbing and lose their retirement benefits.

Substitutes are paid $40 to $55 a day, depending on education level, until they've taught 20 straight days in the same classroom assignment. On the 21st day, substitutes are paid a daily wage based on their teaching certificates, which can be $122 a day, for example. Substitutes who essentially take over a class for a teacher who leaves mid-year are paid their higher, certificate rate from day one.

What apparently happened since 1993 was retired teachers who signed their affidavits were paid certificate rates immediately, no matter the length of their substitution assignments.

"As the word spread among `retired teachers' as to the use of the affidavit, more retired educators submitted the document to the payroll staff," the PPC report says.

Like other retired teachers contacted Thursday, Mr. Cummings said he checked with bookkeeping and central offices staffers about his substitute pay and was assured he'd get the higher wages. He taught on a part-time basis for 31 days in 1994-95 when a teacher left mid-year and was paid his $122 daily certificate rate, which is correct. But when he returned to substitute "here and there" in the 1995-96 term, he continued getting the higher rate when he should have gotten $55 a day.

"I knew I had checked on it and they said they were going to pay me on my certificate because I went to the board and filled out an affidavit," he said.

But it's not the retirees' fault they got too much money, another of the substitutes listed as being overpaid argued Thursday.

"I don't see how they could get that back from you," said Anne Mayer, who's listed as being overpaid by $4,768.88 from 1993 to 1995. "It wasn't that I got all this money that I had no right to. They paid me in good faith."

Ms. Mayer was the lone overpaid substitute in 1993-94, the school system audit says. She and four others were overpaid in 1994-95 and 36 total were overpaid in 1995-96, the audit says.

"It really got out of hand, I think, when I was interim, '95-'96," said Dr. Larke, who was hired as permanent superintendent in March 1996.

But only a few of the hundreds of substitutes working in the system got the extra pay, which raises the question if this was a system of special perks for a select few. Dr. Larke says it was not; Mr. Jackson says it was.

Referring to Maj. Mike Farrell, school police chief who oversaw the investigation Dr. Larke said, "He wasn't convinced and I'm not convinced that anybody did anything to purposely overpay anybody. I haven't found that. If I found that, I'd be talking disciplinary action."

Mr. Jackson, who said he didn't want to comment in detail since he helped instigate the investigations, said the overpayments were not innocent mistakes.

"Everything done was deliberate and premeditated, period," Mr. Jackson said.

The "miscommunication" happened between individual schools and the payroll arm of the accounting department, headed by Mr. Spires, say Dr. Larke and the two investigations. The personnel department, then-headed by Pat Burau, is "out of the loop" on substitute pay, Mr. Fletcher said. The PPC report concludes "...it is virtually impossible for personnel administrators to have any hint that there was a problem before it became a problem."

But Mr. Spires' department should have recognized a "potential problem" in an over-budget amount paid to substitutes, the PPC report says. "However, `hindsight' is always 20/20," the report says.

Mr. Spires refused comment on about the situation Thursday evening, except to say "I think with confidence I can say we've got procedures in place now" to eliminate the overpayments.

Ms. Burau, who was out of town on Thursday, is now assistant superintendent for program development, where she'll direct opening more magnet schools, among other things. Dr. Larke moved her from her job as assistant superintendent for personnel last month, but insists the move is not a response to the overpaid substitutes.

"They should look at that and tie that back into my appointment (to reorganize the system) and the community's desire to have more magnet schools," Dr. Larke said. "I can't control the rumors."

Substitutes were paid on the correct, lower amount during the 1996-97 term which ended May 31, after Dr. Larke warned in a memo last fall to watch for overpayments, Mr. Fletcher said. Ms. Mayer and Mr. Cummings confirmed they received $55 a day for substituting last school year. Dr. Larke also has ordered all requests for paying substitutes on their certificates be initialed by him.

Short of any evidence of individual wrongdoing, the PPC investigation "brought closure to it," Dr. Larke said when releasing the documents Thursday afternoon.