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Will Teach for Food 

A payroll disaster at LAUSD ruins educators’ finances, with no fix in sight

Wednesday, Oct 10 2007
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Jordana Alzate’s year was tough enough, what with her youngest child, Enzo, being born prematurely and nearly dying of liver and gastrointestinal problems before the tiny child slowly recovered.

“Then,” the second-grade teacher and mother of four said ruefully, “I got hit with this.”

The back end of the double whammy was one of the biggest computer payroll problems in state history — a disaster that has blind-sided some 40,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees and has now lasted nearly as long as Alzate’s pregnancy. It was January when the district’s new, $95 million payroll system started spewing out erroneous checks, underpaying some people, overpaying others, and creating such chaos that administrators now pay special counselors to deal with the psychological trauma.

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The blunders persist despite $37.5 million in fix-it cash, and teachers are ratcheting up the pressure by boycotting faculty meetings and holding rallies. They marched on September 25 outside the LAUSD offices — “We won’t take it no more!” hundreds chanted — and, two days later, state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D–East Los Angeles) conducted a hearing to try to determine who is at fault and why it is taking so inexplicably long to correct.

A surfeit of angry rhetoric and finger-pointing has largely overshadowed the personal stories of teachers like Alzate, forced to cope for months with checks that have no connection whatsoever to what they actually earn. Except in a few egregious cases, most shortchanged teachers have managed to pay their bills, often using emergency loans and credit cards. Some have bounced checks; others have drained their savings. But the financial hardships are made far more painful by the frustration of haggling with a bureaucracy that just can’t get its act together.

“I don’t get it. It makes no sense to me,” says Alzate, who last received a correct paycheck in February. Sitting at her kitchen table one recent afternoon in Granada Hills, Alzate spread out several months of pay stubs and showed how impossible it is to make sense of the seemingly random figures. The smallest of her checks was for total earnings of $181 — a fraction of what she was really owed for a month’s work — and net pay of $297, more than her gross.

“It’s like they’re just making up these numbers,” she says. “Every month that it goes on, I feel like I’m losing track of what they owe me.”

Alzate, whose husband, Ivan, coaches soccer for a nonprofit organization, has borrowed money from her parents and used emergency loans and credit cards to pay bills and buy food. Like so many teachers swept up in the morass, she has fought to get money that is owed to her, only to see the problem get worse and worse.

“It’s a joke,” she says. “It seems like such simple math to me. Every check is off by at least $1,000 now.”

Los Angeles teachers receive one paycheck a month. Alzate’s first botched check was directly deposited into her bank account in March. It was about $800 higher than normal. Assuming that it reflected a 6 percent retroactive pay raise, and preoccupied with taking her sickly newborn to medical specialists, she did nothing until her April check showed up $1,400 short.

“I was completely shocked,” she says. “I called downtown. I was told they were working on it. The next month, May, I did not get a check at all.”

By then, the district was issuing thousands of emergency checks to employees who were underpaid. Alzate, who has taught for eight years at Topeka Drive Elementary School in Northridge, joined the throngs who spent hours in line and got a check for $1,400 — about $1,000 less than normal take-home pay.

The trouble with these emergency checks is that they are “advances” against future pay. Most teachers who have accepted emergency checks are now in a Looking Glass world where they get paid less than they are due, but are on the books as “owing” the district. And this absurdity quickly compounds itself: Almost invariably, the district collects on these supposed debts by deducting them from the next, often equally mangled, paycheck.

So now, many teachers are receiving deduction-riddled, truly minuscule paychecks, sending them right back in line for more emergency checks — and putting them even further in debt.

Little surprise, then, that a recurring tide of angry employees is descending upon the district’s “pay centers,” feeding an ever-worsening accounting nightmare. Some teachers, like Sandra Leon, from Chester W. Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park, have been sickened to find they “owe” more than $10,000 after being underpaid for months. “I’m working for free,” Leon says with disdain.

Alzate’s “debts” are not as bad as Leon’s, but in September she was told she owed $3,700. She’s baffled over that, especially since the newfangled pay stubs do not bother to say how many hours she has worked or what she now earns per hour.

The pay stubs — filled with code numbers — are so complicated that the school district has produced a video to help teachers and other workers decipher them. And in true LAUSD style, a new effort is under way to redesign the pay stubs — by committee.

“We’ve set up a committee, along with union members, to help us redesign the pay stub — make it a more user-friendly, readable format,” says David Holmquist, LAUSD’s interim chief operating officer and the point man for fixing this mess.

Alzate says she’s so fearful that she now stays up until midnight each time her check is due to be deposited, just to be sure it arrived in the bank and is enough to cover the bills.

“Some nights I’m crying,” she says. “My husband says, ‘It’s the middle of the night.’ I’m not sleeping well, I’m not eating well, and I’m stressed. I end up tossing and turning the entire night.”

Alzate says she was assured that her problem had been resolved, and was promised that she would be sent a personal payment history that would set everything straight. The payment history arrived later that month with a cover letter.

“Unfortunately,” the letter read, “we believe your report still contains errors as a result of continuing errors . . .” It listed a mysterious $2,030 claim against her salary and said she owes LAUSD $358.

“If they knew it was wrong, why did they send it to me?” she asks. Next came her September check: $485.

“I cried on the phone for two hours,” Alzate recalls. “I’m not usually a crier. I cried. I was blubbering.” Her baby needs care, she told a school official. She can’t deal with these problems. “I shouldn’t have to live like this.”

Holmquist, who calls the mess the district’s most urgent priority, says the biggest underlying problem has been the complex conversion to a uniform pay calendar for teachers whose salaries often vary because of bonuses and extra assignments. He acknowledges that the district erred by not phasing in the new system gradually, while the old system was still functioning as a backup.

Holmquist was not involved in the switchover and declined to pin blame on the district, the German hardware vendor SAP or the consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche, which custom-tailored the off-the-shelf payroll system to LAUSD’s needs and is now getting an avalanche of bad press. Litigation is likely.

Holmquist concedes that about 3,800 people got faulty checks in September — and October may be even worse. He says most problems will be corrected by November, but admits there’s no guarantee.

Teachers, meanwhile, form a long roll call of the disenfranchised and disgusted. Jill Iger, who teaches first grade at Leo Politi Elementary in Koreatown, persuaded some humans down at district headquarters that she does not owe $8,000. “But they don’t know how to get it out of the [computer] system.” D’Ette Nogle, a teacher at Fairfax High, got a paycheck for $15.08. She and her husband, Mark Roeder, who teaches at Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School, claim to have racked up debts of over $9,900.

“They say I owe them $3,300,” says Rachel Bloch, who teaches at the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate and who bounced her car-insurance check. With a newborn daughter at home, her husband, Gabriel, is studying child development and plans to become a teacher, too.

“I’m advising him not to,” Bloch says. “‘No, no, no. You do something else.’”

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