Originally created 07/12/97

Larke: Improper substitute pay discovered by Burau requests



Six weeks after promising no Richmond County substitutes were being improperly paid, a school official submitted requests to have some substitutes paid more than board policy allows, records show.

The Sept. 20 requests, from Pat Burau, now assistant superintendent for program development but then in charge of personnel, plus one from Gene Spires, controller, were rejected in October by Superintendent Charles Larke, who now says that was his first inkling some substitutes received more pay than they should. The subject was first broached by trustee Johnnie Jackson on Aug. 8, who was assured by Ms. Burau and Dr. Larke that no policies were being broken.

"I'm coming in here finding all kind of garbage to clean up," Dr. Larke said Friday. "I was shocked at the board meeting when I told Mr. Jackson that (the overpayment) was not true...Of course, I was wrong."

But Ms. Burau and other employees are not to blame for the overpaid substitutes because they were following a conflicting policy in place since the early 1980s and approved in part by former Superintendent John Strelec, Dr. Larke said.

Two separate investigations found 39 retired teachers were overpaid as much as $96,000 for substituting from 1993 to 1996, but the blame rests with the system of paying substitutes and not with any individuals, the reports concluded. The retirees were paid higher daily wages based on their teaching certificates from the start of any substitute job instead of only after the 20th day substituting in the same classroom, as is policy. Dr. Larke has said he wants the retirees to pay back the extra money to the school system.

The "miscommunication" both investigations cite comes from an affidavit in use since the early 1980s that the retired teachers signed, releasing the school system of liability if they earn too much and lose their retirement benefits. Item No. 4 of that affidavit reads, "...the County Board of Education has agreed to give me full certificate pay, as I am an experienced teacher, as opposed to lesser pay normally granted to substitutes."

"The policy and the affidavit conflict," Dr. Larke said.

When Mr. Jackson brought up questions about the policy at the Aug. 8 board meeting, Dr. Larke and Ms. Burau assured board members the practice of paying subs $40-$55 per day until the 21st day of teaching was being followed.

Ms. Burau was out of town on Friday. But a tape recording of the Aug. 8 meeting shows she told board members, "We were recruiting retired teachers who would take the position for us and we would pay them if they were going to be long-term. Now, of course, that's not for every person who holds a certificate."

On Sept. 20, though, Ms. Burau sent two memos to the bookkeeping department asking for higher wages for two retired teachers - one of whom is listed among the 39 overpaid subs - and Mr. Spires wrote a memo Sept. 29 asking for another exception to the policy. All three requests were rejected by Dr. Larke on Oct. 4, records show.

The overpayments reached new levels once Dr. Strelec retired and Dr. Larke was appointed as interim superintendent during the 1995-96 school year. From one overpaid sub in 1993-94, there were 36 in 1995-96, the school system's internal audit shows.

Dr. Larke says he couldn't alter how the school system's top administrators operated during his interim year and couldn't have stopped the overpayments had he known about them. He released a memo dated Jan. 7, 1988, signed by Dr. Strelec, that approved paying one retired teacher the higher wages for all 53 days she substituted in 1987.

"I'm not accusing Ms. Burau because as you can see the previous superintendent did approve for her to pay somebody," Dr. Larke said. "I don't disagree with the investigation. I don't disagree with the findings about miscommunication because I see that throughout. You had a previous superintendent who approved it."

Dr. Strelec was interviewed by school police officers investigating the overpayments on Jan. 16 of this year. When asked if he ever approved a deviation from the school policy on paying substitutes, Dr. Strelec wrote, "No."

In a telephone interview Friday evening, Dr. Strelec said he couldn't recall the 1988 memo but said he never wrote a memo directing the personnel department to change how it pays substitutes.

"There's always an exception to be made for everything," Dr. Strelec said. "I can't speak to that memorandum. That's going back a little bit too much. I don't recall particular circumstances that would justify me to sign that memo. That to me would be immaterial. One particular circumstance."

Now it will be up to school board members to change the policy of paying substitutes, which Dr. Larke said he'll ask for when the board meets on July 24. Trustees need to allow the system to create a new contract for temporary employees so substitutes working more than one or two day assignments can earn higher wages, Dr. Larke said.

Until then, no substitute will earn more than $55 a day before their 21st day in the classroom, he said.