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Wanted -- payroll Mr. Fix-It for L.A. schools

September 19, 2007|Steve Lopez

So let's say your employer hasn't paid you in three months, you've maxed out the credit cards, and you're begging the banker for a break on the mortgage. But the colleague who sits next to you is a gold mine, with the company accidentally overpaying him by thousands of dollars while you're eating saltines for dinner.

Winter turns to spring, summer gives way to fall, and not only is the payroll system still in chaos, but your dunderheaded bosses don't have the slightest clue how to fix the problem.

This, my friends, is the reality of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which screwed up 30,000 paychecks in June alone. Remember the movie "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray wakes up each morning to the same routine, as if time is standing still? That's the story here, too, except that it's a horror movie rather than a romantic romp, and none of the main characters is as smart as the groundhog.

Eight months after switching to a new $95-million accounting and payroll system, the cost of trying to fix it and move on is expected to run an additional $50 million. Last week the school board approved a request by Supt. David L. Brewer to spend $10 million on yet another consultant.

Wait! Don't write that check.

I'll be the consultant for $5 million.

Or, I'd be happy to be the independent monitor the board wants to hire to watch over the new consultant.

So what if I don't have any idea what I'm doing? Twelve monkeys with an abacus and a clipboard could have done a better job than the people who've had a hand in this debacle. And I'm relatively cheap.

I'm still working out the fine points of a better system, but I'd probably hire day laborers so I could use the carpool lanes and whip around to every school with a calculator and a checkbook. Better yet, I could just go to district headquarters, as I did Monday, and mediate for the army of pathetic souls who hunch there in desperation, begging the district to get their pay right.

Christine, who teaches at Frank Del Olmo Elementary, said she comes once a week to try to convince the district she was not overpaid by $17,000.

Mary Alba said she started teaching history at Vista Middle School Aug. 19 but got paid only for working three days that month.

It was Dianne Reyes, a second-grade teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, who took the daily prize for most sympathetic victim. While undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and continuing to teach, she's made five trips to headquarters trying to find out why she had missed several paychecks, one time spending nine and a half hours.

"It's scary because our taxes could be messed up," said Reyes, who recently forfeited a refinancing deal on her house because she couldn't show pay stubs. "It's a mess."

Scary and a mess is right. If the slow-footed beast that calls itself L.A. Unified can't figure out the math on employee paychecks, can it be trusted to teach more than 700,000 students?

Theressa Sams, who teaches at Henry Clay Middle School, says she was shorted $958. Meanwhile, she said, "it's been alleged that some people who are dead got checks."

That might explain how we got in this mess. The dead people must all work for the payroll office.

So, aside from the initial blunder of buying a system that doesn't work, and for which there is still talk of a lawsuit, why in the name of public education has it taken so long for the decrepit, gargantuan bureaucracy to do something about it?

Because it's a decrepit, gargantuan bureaucracy, of course.

I had hoped that retired Vice Adm. Brewer, who inherited the new payroll system from Roy Romer, would be the kind of commander who clears the decks and damns the torpedoes. I was expecting more than a plan to hire yet another $10-million consultant. He keeps touting the book "Good to Great" as some kind of holy grail for managers, but from what I can see, his payroll fiasco has gone from bad to worse.

"It's a systemic failure," said district consultant Darry Sragow. "It's not the school board, or Brewer. It's a perfect example of how difficult it is to change any entrenched bureaucracy."

It doesn't help, he said, that the manual on how to compute teacher salaries is 300 pages long.

Sragow said a consultant who studied the problems claimed he could fix it in two weeks if it weren't for the district's byzantine pay formulas for teachers, which are based on experience, advanced degrees and 6 billion other factors.

In other words, we should be on top of this thing around the turn of the next century.

A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, admits that "we have one of the most complicated payroll systems, literally, in the world."

But that's not the problem," he insisted.

Pray tell, Duffy.

"The district, in its infinite wisdom, bought a computer payroll system off a shelf," he charged. Any competent business, Duffy said, would have bought a product better tailored to its specific needs, or it would have contracted out entirely rather than waste staff time computing checks.

He could be right.

And for just $5 million, I promise to figure it all out.

As a new feature, I'll periodically update you on unfinished business around town.

Jaime de la Vega's Hummer: It's been 242 days and counting since I offered L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's transportation advisor several options for unloading that embarrassing hog, but he's still driving it.

L.A. Unified payroll fiasco: Using Feb. 1 as a starting date, it's 231 days and counting. Stay tuned for details of the Payroll Pool, in which readers will vie for handsome prizes by guessing how many days it will take to resolve the problem.


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