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District payroll a lesson in misery

L.A. Unified's troubled $95-million computer system is bungling paychecks. Desperate teachers take out loans.

August 25, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Since launching a $95-million computer system six months ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District has been beset by programming glitches, hardware crashes and mistakes by hurriedly trained clerical staff. The result: tens of thousands of teachers, cafeteria workers, classroom aides and others have been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all.

The hardest hit have been the roughly 48,000 certificated employees -- teachers and others who require a credential to perform their jobs. Their complicated, varied job assignments and pay scales have perplexed computer programmers and, this month, an additional 3,900 people received incorrect paychecks.

That total would have been higher had the district not caught "a number of. . . system defects" and "administrative errors," before paychecks were written, acknowledged David Holmquist, the district's director of risk management and insurance.

Anedra Harper knew she would never get rich working as a teacher in Los Angeles' public schools. The trade-off, the 32-year-old figured, was the satisfaction of doing a job that mattered.

But for three months this summer, Harper, who makes about $40,000 teaching learning and emotionally disabled students at a city high school, was not paid. With mortgage payments, bills and grocery receipts piling up, she eventually took out $15,000 in loans to stay afloat.

"I absolutely love teaching and working with kids," she said, "but this has been a nightmare."

The continued payroll problems have become a serious stumbling block for Supt. David L. Brewer, who inherited the Business Tools for Schools technology project when he was hired in November. His early, emphatic promises to fix the mess only exacerbated the situation as district hotlines and an emergency office set up in L.A. Unified's downtown headquarters were immediately overwhelmed.

Union leaders have pounced on the issue, lambasting the district for not doing more. United Teachers Los Angeles took the district to court, unsuccessfully seeking a ruling to force a remedy. No quick fix appears possible: District officials say that several more months are needed and have already set aside an additional $37 million to pay for the repairs.

That does not bode well for employees. With only one payday each month -- as is the case for most district staff -- when something goes awry, carefully laid plans to pay bills and budget for such basics as groceries and gas quickly become complicated.

"All I want to know is whether I am getting a paycheck or not," a calm but weary Rosanna White, an English teacher, told a frazzled payroll staffer who was trying to help determine why she had received a check for less than half of what she was owed for July. White was into her fourth hour of what would turn out to be a seven-hour wild goose chase.

"Do you even see my [teaching] assignment in the computer?" she asked the man, the third person to whom she had repeated her story so far that day.

"No," he said, helplessly.

White, 30, who earns about $43,000 a year as a full-time teacher at Manual Arts High School, said she was first beset by payroll problems in February, when she was working every day as a substitute at the school.

That month, she received no paycheck. With little savings in the bank, White saw her finances spiral out of control. She accepted an emergency advance from the district that estimated her net pay, but did not account for taxes, union fees or other deductions. As the district's system automatically recouped the advance in subsequent checks, White said, she was left scrambling anew and was forced to take more emergency advances. The cycle lasted for months. White said she has taken her credit cards to the limit and gotten about $14,000 in loans to keep afloat.

Her story is a common one. Months of oscillating between underpayments and overpayments, and trying to decipher the system's pay stubs has led to widespread confusion and frustration. White and Harper, the special education teacher, eventually received paychecks for July, but both say they are uncertain whether the amounts are accurate.

"I don't even know what my base pay is anymore!" an exasperated Beverly Ann Ball said recently to a group of teachers who nodded in agreement as they waited for help at the district office. Over the last four months, Ball's paychecks have varied dramatically, fluctuating from $1,033 to $3,269.

Teachers continue to take the brunt of the abuse because they work 10 months out of the year, but are scheduled to be paid 12 times.

The payroll system's software was not designed to correctly spread out, or annualize, the salaries, Holmquist said. Programmers have begun the two- to three-month process of rewriting the software from scratch using more complex programs while district officials consider scrapping the 12-month pay calendar, Holmquist said.

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