Windham Northeast Supervisory Union hires consultant to review payroll

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BELLOWS FALLS — A retired school business manager from northern Vermont will start work Wednesday on trying to untangle the payroll accounting mess at the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.

Superintendent Christopher Pratt said Tuesday he hired Marilyn Frederick, the retired business manager from the Lamoille North Supervisory Union in Hyde Park, on the recommendation of both the schools' attorney, Pietro Lynn, and the School Board Insurance Trust.

"She came highly recommended," said Pratt, who noted that Frederick, now retired, had her own consulting business. She will be paid $135 an hour, he said, with no travel expenses.

Pratt said Frederick will stay for as long as it takes to get the accounting and payroll questions resolved.

Last week, several teachers called for a third-party auditor or accountant to come in and review the WNESU's books, and Pratt said the hiring of Frederick was his response to that request.

He said the extent of Frederick's mission would be discussed Wednesday morning.

Last week at a public meeting, about 60 teachers and staff said their paychecks, deductions and benefits were a mess: paychecks were not getting deposited directly to their banks; retirement deposits were not being made (although they were being withheld); and health insurance savings accounts and coverage snafus were widespread.

Teachers' complaints mostly focused on the lack of deposits in their Ameritrade 403B accounts, which are tax-free savings accounts, similar to 401k accounts. Teachers said withdrawals hadn't been made for months until last week, and they had lost interest on those accounts. Teachers also said they were worried that their W2 forms would not be accurate as a result.

"I just want answers," said Pratt, who is in his second year as superintendent for the four-town, five-school district. "We owe it to the teachers. No matter, the teachers will be compensated for their loss if they need to be compensated for their 403B losses."

Lily Hart, a teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School and a member of the teachers' union grievance committee, said she would reserve judgment on the steps Pratt and the supervisory union are taking so far. She noted that a special meeting of the supervisory union board is slated for Wednesday night in Bellows Falls Middle School. Hart said one of the most important issues to the teachers is communication, or the lack thereof, from the school district's business office. She said teachers are still withholding judgment on that front.

"I am reserving judgment about how I feel about the response until that meeting has taken place," she wrote in an email on Tuesday. "Communication has been a key piece of this issue. I think it is fair to give the SU and the board a chance to communicate about what steps they've taken in response to the problems brought to light before forming a firm opinion on their reaction."

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David Clark of Westminster, a member of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board and chairman of the supervisory union, said he hopes Frederick will be able to untangle the accounting mess.

"We don't really know what caused the problem. We can make a lot of surmises," he said. "That's part of the purpose to get a third party in here to figure it out. We won't know until we find out."

The three main issues are the new state-mandated accounting software, eFinancePlus, adopted by the school district at the behest of the Agency of Education; the forced departure of the payroll clerk in the business office last November; and problems at the local TD Bank, which is the immediate recipient of the teachers' savings accounts. The bank funnels the funds to Ameritrade in Boston.

Clark said after a visit Tuesday to the business office that getting the W2 forms out by Thursday — a federal requirement — and getting the support staff their December raise and back pay are his priorities.

Pratt said that Edie Cole, the district's long-time business manager, is going to retire at the end of the school year, as planned. He said he promoted Teresa Taylor, an accountant who has worked for the school district since May, as Cole's replacement. And, Pratt said, he recently posted an advertisement for a new accountant, to replace Taylor.

He said he hopes to have someone on board as soon as possible, so that Taylor could start training with Cole, who told the board last year she would be retiring after 14 years with the district.

Pratt said he met with the teachers' union grievance committee on Monday, and he hopes all the remaining grievances will be resolved when the next paycheck comes out on Friday.

"I want some answers, not some spin," said Deborah Wright of Rockingham, a member of the BFUHS board, and vice chairwoman of the WNESU. "It's going to cost us some money. Everything has been impacted in part or in whole. It seems astounding the software hasn't been working. Where's the oversight?"

Pratt released information Tuesday on the amount of overtime in the business office since July 2018, which he said last week totaled $66,000, a result of the new accounting software.

The overwhelming majority of the overtime hours, 1,151 hours over a 16-month period, were tallied by Ronda Williams, the payroll clerk who was fired by Pratt and Cole in early November. The other staffers accumulated a tiny fraction of Williams' hours, with the next highest being 131 hours by Taylor. The entire office tallied 1,314 hours of overtime. Pratt said Williams' high overtime was not the reason behind her firing.

Clark said the overtime budget has been discussed in open session by the supervisory union board for many months, and the board knew the business office was struggling with the software. Clark said he liked and respected Williams, and has offered to write her a letter of recommendation.

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


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