Teachers, staff air payroll grievances

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BELLOWS FALLS — Upset and angry teachers and staff from the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union detailed a myriad of problems and inaccuracies in their pay and payroll deductions during a public meeting Wednesday night.

There are 450 employees in the supervisory district, which includes the Bellows Falls Union High School, the Bellows Falls Middle School, the Grafton-Athens School and the Westminster Central School, about 1,200 students.

Teachers and school staff described a variety of problems, with many saying the problems with the new state-mandated education accounting software program, eFinancePlus, got much worse in November, around the same time Superintendent Christopher Pratt fired the district's only payroll clerk, Ronda Williams.

Jessica Aukema, a paraprofessional at Bellows Falls Middle School, and a member of the staff union's grievance committee, presented the WNESU board with the results of a partial survey of the employees, which showed that the 403b retirement accounts and Flex Spending accounts for the health insurance showed the biggest problems. "It seems that money has been withheld from employees' paychecks but not deposited into the correct accounts. This has been happening since early November," Aukema said.

Aukema said that as far as the union membership could tell, everyone who was making deposits into the 403b retirement accounts (similar to 401k accounts) was affected by the payroll problems.

Aukema said that the employees understood about the computer software problems, but she faulted the lack of communication from the business office about the ongoing payroll problems.

"While we understand that those working in the business office were putting many hours into trying to solve payroll issues, they were not effectively communicating with individuals who had problems with their pay," she told the gathering.

Substitute teachers talked about being underpaid or being overpaid; others said their health insurance cards had been declined, and many said they hadn't been paid yet for after-school duty.

And many said they are worried about their upcoming W2 tax forms, and they questioned whether the deductions taken out of their checks since November for their individual retirement accounts had ever really been deposited correctly and whether there would be serious tax consequences as a result.

Teachers said they have also lost months of interest on those retirement deposits, which Pratt acknowledged, noting that a solution would be worked out..

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"It was a perfect storm," Pratt said after the meeting, referring to the new accounting software and staffing problems in the business office.

The meeting was moved to the Bellows Falls Middle School auditorium because of the large number of teachers. "No one wanted to be in this position," he said. "The W2s are going to be accurate. As superintendent I take ultimate responsibility," he said.

Pratt said the union representing the teachers and staff has filed 13 grievances so far and he has been able to resolve five. "It's understandable, I get it," he said.

School officials laid a lot of the blame on a new state mandated school accounting system — eFinancePlus — which the Agency of Education selected after the Vermont Legislature mandated a statewide education accounting system. There was no support or training for the complicated new system, aside from some videos, staff said.

The problems with the computer system also extend beyond payroll, and it has delayed the schools from finalizing their budgets as well.

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WNESU is one of three school districts that volunteered to adopt eFinancePlus first, in an effort to save money.

But that backfired, said Jack Bryar, a school board member from Grafton.

David Clark, chairman of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, reassured the teachers throughout the meeting that the board and the business office staff would get to the bottom of the problems and straighten them out.

During the lengthy meeting, Clark instructed the board's recording secretary to take down all the unanswered questions, and said the questions — and their eventual answers — would be posted on the supervisory union's website.

Clark said it is unacceptable that the teachers and staff are having problems with their pay and benefits. "These are the biggest concerns we have right now," said Clark.

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Edie Cole, the district's business manager, said that since the eFinancePlus system was adopted, it has been one problem after another. She said she and other staff were working weekends and after normal business hours to try and resolve the problems — with the priority of getting people paid.

Cole said the problem with the 603b accounts was that Ameritrade hadn't "captured" the money from an account at TD Bank, which prompted incredulous response from several teachers.

Pratt said in a followup interview that the software, which was first adopted locally in January 2019, ended up costing the district more money. In just four months at the end of 2019, employees in the business office were paid more than $66,000 in overtime coping with the problem, the superintendent said.

The teachers and staff at the meeting made it clear they supported Ronda Williams, the former payroll clerk, and they gave her a standing ovation. After the meeting adjourned, teachers and staff lined up to give Williams a hug.

Williams said after the meeting she was let go after a meeting with Pratt and Cole, and she said she has been unable to find a new job, likely because she was fired from her last job. Williams had been the payroll clerk in the WNESU office for 12 years. She said that "nobody had a clue" in the business office about how to do her job, and that caused the most severe problems.

Williams said she didn't know why she had been fired.

"I was surprised that people got up and spoke," she said. "It's just sad for me."

The state Agency of Education is currently advertising for a "school finance system support specialist" to help school districts adopt the eFinancePlus system.

Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Agency of Education, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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