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December 28, 2014

Cleburne County teacher sues school board over salary mistake

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Posted: Monday, August 4, 2014 9:15 am | Updated: 10:25 pm, Mon Aug 4, 2014.

A Pleasant Grove Elementary School teacher recently filed a lawsuit against the Cleburne County Board of Education and superintendent to stop the system from garnishing her wages for four years of salary overpayments.

Hollie White, who declined to comment for this story, has worked at the school system since the 1996-97 school year, according to her complaint, filed in Cleburne County Circuit Court June 25. Multiple attempts over the last few days to reach her attorneys, William Miller and Clinton Daughtery, for comment were unsuccessful.

White was mistakenly placed in a higher level on the salary schedule at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year and she stayed on that level through the 2009-10 school year, according to the complaint filed in the lawsuit. White returned that school year from taking medical leave during the 2005-06 school year, the complaint states. Two raises were awarded by the Legislature for teachers by the time she returned, so she didn’t notice the mistake, according to the complaint. In October 2011 she was informed of the mistake and her salary was adjusted to the proper level. The adjustment cost her $744.91 in monthly gross pay, a net of $475.24 on her October paycheck, the complaint said.

When she requested a report of the over payments, she received a summary that said she was overpaid $34,490.94 over the four-year period. It didn’t say why she was wrongly placed, where she was placed on the salary schedule or the date which it happened, the complaint alleges.

White’s salary, along with all other public school teachers’ salaries in the state, is dictated by a salary schedule created by the state Department of Education based on mandates by the state Legislature, according to Athesia Davis, payroll clerk at the Cleburne County school system. The salary schedule is based on the number of years of experience and the amount of education a teacher has. Every three years, or when a new level of education is reached, a teacher gets a bump to the next salary level, Davis said.

When teachers are hired, they must present their most recent teaching certificate, which is verified with the state, Davis said. “Everything is verified,” Superintendent Claire Dryden said, adding that some new employees have claimed more education or experience than they actually had.  

Currently, the school system updates teachers’ information individually each year, Davis said. But in the coming school year, the system is moving to a new computer program that will allow it to update records for many employees at once, she said.

Dryden said there are several mechanisms in place to make sure that teachers’ salaries are correct. Teachers must fill out forms at the end of every school year confirming their education level and their years of experience. That practice has been in place for the entire time Dryden has worked for the system, about 20 years, she said. The form is used to place the teachers on the salary schedule, she said.

Once teachers are placed in their salary level it’s checked by the chief school finance officer, Dryden said. Still, there are occasional mistakes. Sometimes teachers are underpaid because they don’t inform the system of further education or sometimes, they are overpaid, she said.

When a mistake is made, if it is a minor one caught quickly, the system will notify the employee and fix the error, said Melissa Lumpkin, finance officer for the system. If it is a large error, the school system will contact the Alabama Department of Education, she said. Lumpkin said the system contacted the department about White’s overpayment.

Most teacher salaries are paid through state funds called foundation units, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, public information manager for the department. The state funds are allocated based on the number of students in the system.

“The school boards do have to assure us that they are following the state minimum salary schedule for teachers,” Valdes-Hubert said. “They send the salary schedule with yearly budgets and that is checked when submitted.”

The state doesn’t check individual teacher salaries, she said. She said mistakes do happen.

“But to our knowledge it’s infrequent,” Valdes-Hubert said.

When school systems approach the department about an underpayment or overpayment, they are advised to “attempt to recover money at the same rate that they gave it out,” she said. Any money that is recovered stays with the school system, Valdes-Hubert said. It is not reimbursed to the department, she said.

White stated in her complaint that she received a letter from Dryden dated April 11, 2014, informing her that beginning in May and for the next eight years, $359.28 would be withheld each month to correct the overpayment.

White’s complaint asks the court to stop the garnishment. Her complaint states that the system doesn’t have the authority to garnish her wages without a judicial process. In addition, she believes that the law has a two-year statute of limitations on collecting the overpayments, which the school system has missed. She also asks that employees be provided information to allow them to verify they are being compensated at the proper level.

If a judge decides that she does owe the money to the school system, White asks for a judgement against any employees responsible for the mistake to cover the taxes and retirement contributions that were paid based on the higher income she was receiving as well as medical expenses due to the “emotional distress caused by the sudden and significant reduction in her compensation.”

White also asks that attorney fees and other costs be paid by the defendants.

The school system’s attorney, Donald Sweeney, declined to answer any questions, but said the school board’s answer to the complaint is due Aug. 15.

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