School district, union slowly moving forward
January 27 - Since its Dec. 5 meeting, when several payroll issues were brought to the table, the South Lane School District (SLSD) board met for the first time in the new year. Becky McCoy, who is a teacher in the district and an SLEA representative, spoke on the matter and also addressed a new contract for staff that is expected to be completed at the end of this month.
“We are very excited for contract mediation to take place at the end of January and for the contract to finally be settled,” McCoy said. “However, we are still feeling frustrated that the bargaining is taking place during the school day — which means our bargaining team has to get substitutes and our members can’t be there in person to support the bargaining process we are witnessing.”
Yesterday (Jan. 26), the district bargaining team and SLEA team participated in mediation, with both groups hoping to complete bargaining. The district noted that July and August payroll included payroll issues involving summer-school pay, step increases, and deductions; September payroll included payroll issues involving step increases, deductions and contributions.
Intent-to-return forms (which allow the district to anticipate any staffing changes that could be coming up in the next school year) are expected to be returned by staff at the end of January. The forms are common practice within school districts and are not binding. It is also common for districts to ask staff to return the forms in January.
“Many members are reluctant to commit to returning next year … until the contract is settled, and we’ve finally completed fixing all of the pay role issues,” McCoy added.
The deadline for teachers to return intent-to-return forms is the end of this month
The school district was believed to have or had multiple payroll and benefits issues amongst both classified and certified staff dating back as far back as June in some cases.
In a note to The Sentinel, district leadership said, “The district hired a consultant with expertise and experience to assess the situation and provide information to the board — and support the staff with making corrections.
According to the consultant’s report, the first challenge was in the finance department when key positions were not filled. The void in staffing created a need for one person to fill three full-time positions starting last June, which was also a critical time of year. This especially impacted payroll as final pay for the fiscal year 2021-22 was required. In addition, the new fiscal year 2022-23 had to be set up.
Though new employees were being hired, each had to be set up in the system. Staff from other departments were called to help with the process, “which presented its own challenges with getting them trained and entering information correctly,” the report explained.
The two open positions in the finance department were filled at the end of August. This, too, required intensive training.
“Catching up after several months without key staff is an almost impossible task but it is being accomplished,” stated the report. “Districts across the state are being challenged to hire new staff as fewer people are applying for the jobs.”
One example in the report was the Hood River County School District, which posted a position last May, with only one application received — in October. This was despite having contracted with two outside recruiting firms.
During the period of transition beginning in June, several payroll issues came up that required extra attention. Most important were open enrollment with OEBB for insurance coverage; complying with both Collective Bargaining Agreements in provision of benefits to staff and the proration of certain benefits; the District benefit contribution to either an HSA or HRA-VEBA for eligible employees; questions from staff about PERS; and insurance rate tables.
“Multiple communications went out to all staff, as well as a process for logging questions. All but the most individual concerns that involve other agencies have been answered,” stated the report. “Now, staff can email a specific address and have issues addressed within three days.”
Superintendent Dr. Yvonne Curtis also noted to The Sentinel that “We continue to have questions regarding contributions and deductions. With PERS questions, we have been providing information to employees of what we report to PERS,” she said. “Questions about benefits (403b, HRA-VEBA, HSA, etc.) relate to what staff can see in their individual accounts and what we report as being paid. We have asked staff to provide copies of their statements so that we can see how contributions are being applied. This will help us as we follow up with vendors.”
District finance director, Celia Gowing also noted that the district has “retained the services of experts in payroll, human resources and school district financial management to provide additional training, support and guidance.”
Gowing added that administrators have met with union leaders to discuss how to improve communication.
“Despite efforts by HR and payroll, members are still reporting a lack of communication and frustration at not knowing how and when issues will finally be resolved,” McCoy responded. “After the December board meeting, enough problems with communication persisted that SLEA had to peruse legal action against the district. The district was three weeks late in responding to our settlement offer. The settlement would have made all grievances and lawsuits go away. We are currently working on its counter.”
On Oct. 3, Superintendent Curtis communicated with all staff about the issues regarding how they would all be corrected.
“On October 7, SLEA had their attorney notify us,” Dr. Curtis noted to The Sentinel. “When a party notifies us that their attorney speaks for them, the District then engages the District’s attorney to speak for the district. When this happens, the process is a longer process for completing communications and agreements.”
According to the district, SLSD has currently caught up with depositing contributions and deductions for 403(b), HRA-VEBA, HSA, and PERS accounts. Although finance office staff are still learning, they have received training on the payroll process, depositing employee deductions and employer contributions, and have made contact with benefit vendors in order to better understand the payment process and requirements.
“Now that finance staff have learned more and have made the corrections on our end, they are now reaching out to meet with staff in their buildings and departments if there is anything unresolved,” the district said. “The only area we anticipate questions going forward is on timecards — because of a cumbersome, antiquated paper process, the district seeks to streamline. It will be fully addressed when we are completely converted to electronic processes.”
At the October meeting, Gowing noted that, following meetings with the unions, communication has been stronger. “Our goal is to get a response to everybody in three days. I am happy to say we have been able to do that. We may not always have an answer, but we can say we are looking into this. That has been a good process update.”
Earlier in this school year, the school district created a Google form that allowed staff to submit questions about their paychecks. In September, they had 243 entries, which represented 43 percent of paychecks issued. This document included staff name, time and date stamp, building location, specific concern, and columns for noting follow up and resolved dates.
In regard to December payroll, there were 28 questions asked to the district office from staff. A few staff had hours missing on their timecards and a stipend issue that was corrected. Other questions submitted were about deductions and withholdings from paychecks. Gowing has also been sending out a weekly update to all staff that updates them on major questions that have been arising overtime.
The school district is currently having its annual audit while, at the same time, having their payroll and benefit information reviewed by an outside payroll and benefit specialist.
Also at the meeting, Bryan Parsons, a teacher at London School, spoke out against transgender teaching policies. Cheryl Mueller, a former school board member, and Cottage Grove resident Lindsey Parsons, also spoke on the issue.
“Transgenderism is being promoted, yet the other side of this issues is not being discussed and, as a teacher, my job is to give my students a well-rounded education and not protect them from true information,” Parsons said. “In fact, I might be willing to teach on this issue in my classroom as long as I had parent permission and could share sources from both sides of the issue. I assume however I would never be allowed to share the side of the issue that I have spoken with this board about for the past four months.”
Parsons added that the parents she has spoken to about the issue are very upset. “Despite being a teacher in the South Lane School District, my five children will never attend a school here for this very reason,” said admitted. “I know many home-schooled families that feel the same way. The South Lane School District needs to take decisive action on this issue.”
Dr. Curtis also gave a report regarding a recent district Alice training, which prepares individuals in the case of an active shooter situation. “We had four different police departments here: Springfield, Eugene, Cottage Grove and the sheriff’s department. They gave us good feedback. In the end, they were very complementary about our process, and especially about how people took it so seriously,” Curtis said. “It made me feel more confident as a superintendent that staff know what to do.”