Union says SLSD payroll issues ‘Start with communication’

District conducts review, provides response and plan moving forward

December 23 - The South Lane School District classified union was informed last week by the state union that the school district has not been paying its union dues despite funds being taken from employees’ paychecks since as late as September. This comes following months of issues within the district in the payroll and HR departments.

“This money is coming out of our paychecks. Where is it going?” asked Sheila Heley, a representative of classified employees in the district.

The school district, according to the union, is believed to have multiple payroll and benefit issues amongst both classified and certified staff dating back to September and as far back as June in some cases. District leadership says that employee turnover, mixed with a software system that is not generally used, led to the accounting problems — but classified union leadership says that there is more to the difficulties.

“The biggest issue for union reps and employees across the board is the lack of communication,” said classified employees union president, Stephanie Rogers. “They’re not even communicating with each other from one department to the next to make sure things are running smoothly and being handled.”

Other grievances filed within the district in the last six months include employees receiving incorrect or no paychecks and benefits not being properly distributed. According to one employee who was having child support payments taken out of their checks, the deductions were not applied, which led to court issues.

“They [the district] don’t talk with each other. They don’t talk with us. It’s making for a lot of unhappy people,” Rogers added.

In September, several classified employees say they did not receive a direct deposit payment due to errors by the district and were not informed until the day it was expected to be deposited.

“I think what’s happened is that they are so overwhelmed and inexperienced that they just can’t pull it together,” Rogers surmised.

According to Heley, “All of the blame is being put on the finance department, and I’m sure some of the issues are legitimately the finance department. But when you have issues going on in your HR department and that information transfers to your finance department, it starts there — but we are putting all the blame over here.

“Everyone is blaming Celia [Gowing, the district finance director]. But in order for finances to make a lot of these mistakes they are making, HR is not doing their job,” added Heley. “A good example of that is through the classified union. We get a list of who the classified employees are. We will get ready to send out a correspondence through the list. There were over 20 names of people on that list who either no longer work for the district, have become teachers, have retired and those types of things. That comes from the HR department. If they haven’t gotten their list correct and cleaned up their mess, then payroll doesn’t know any better.”

Rogers and Heley say that the district internally is laying a lot of the blame on two employees who were in charge of HR and finance that have since left the district within the last year.

According to Heley, “Those two employees that the blame is being put on offered to help the new people that came in. They refused; they said, ‘Nope, we’ve got it, we don’t need their help.’ But when those previous people were here, we didn’t have payroll issues. Our PERS were applied to our PERS accounts, our union dues were paid. Now that they are gone, all of that is screwed up, so how do you blame these people who are no longer here that had it running smoothly?”

The two previous employees who were the heads of HR and payroll did so while performing many tasks.

Heley said that the head of HR left first because doing the job by herself was too much.

“Her doctor said, ‘You either get a less stressful job or you’re not going to be around.’ Nobody was listening to her cries for more employees to help,” said Heley.

Rogers believes the head of finance left due to the lack of communication. “Our HR person that left had one person that was working with her — and they both left,” she said.

Union representatives say they have around a dozen employees who have sent in correspondence between HR and finance.

“The responses keep saying, ‘It’s being taken care of’ — and they are still waiting, and this is since the end of the last school year,” explained Rogers. “We are trying to go through the right processes to have things happen, but we are hearing blame placed everywhere else with no accountability. No ‘let’s fix this.’ It’s ‘who can we blame?’”

Rogers added that the most frustrating part for her as an employee and a union president is that “We have communicated so many times. We’ve gone to the school board, we’ve written the school board, we filed a joint communication to the school board on behalf of both unions and all the employees. The teacher’s union received a response and we did not. That spoke volumes.”

South Lane School District is having an audit done to look over the many issues that have hit the district. In the meantime, problems remain as the holiday season continues.

“We live paycheck to paycheck. When you mess with our paychecks, it’s terrifying,” said Rogers. “You can’t tell us you value us and then not hear us.”

Rogers met with several of the school district's top leadership in September, a conversation she says that didn’t go very far.

“This is something that when we spoke in September should have been addressed and was not,” she said.

Rogers and Heley also commented on their concerns for the district's struggles to find substitutes at this time.

“Because of all the bad PR the district is creating, we can’t get subs. I’ve had people that I know reach out and say they see that ‘South Lane is hiring. What do you think?’ Can I honestly tell them I think it’s a great place to work?” Heley asked.

“Not with all the current payroll issues,” Rogers added. “It’s sad but it’s true.”

“I think this comes from the top down,” Heley said. “You are at a place where you can’t just put the blame on HR or finance. You have to look at the fact that, for months now, the board and the superintendent were made aware that these issues were going on — and are still going on. They need to be held accountable as well. It’s not fair to use one person as your scapegoat. And that’s what is happening.”

At this time, the state union is involved.

Rogers and Heley noted that, because to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and other reasons, the union will not be going on strike. 

“This hurts the kids; we are here for the kids,” Rogers said. “Our hope is that we are going to be able to get this fixed with our grievance proceedings. We have legal counsel for our union as well as the teachers. We are listening to their advice that it is now at the state level. If there aren’t the classified employees to run the schools, schools don’t run.”

The Classified Union did meet with several district employees Dec. 13 and the meeting was described as productive for both sides.

Gowing, who is South Lane School District director of finances, responded to The Sentinel with the following statement:

“The district office at South Lane School District is aware of the problems associated with payroll, including contributions and deductions, that have taken place over the past months. Like many other businesses and organizations, we have struggled with staff turnover, training new staff, and older software. During staff transition, we did reach out to other supporting organizations for additional staff support. These organizations were also experiencing staff shortages and were not able to help. From the middle of June through the end of August, the finance office was short staffed by two full time employees — half of their staff.

“We have taken and continue to take steps to address and to correct each of the payroll issues. Our new staff have had training as it has been available. They have also made contact with our payroll benefit providers in order to build a network of ongoing support for employee benefit management. Both the finance and human resource departments have been implementing processes to ensure timely and accurate payroll processing. Additionally, we have retained the services of experts in payroll, human resources, and school district financial management to provide additional training, support, and guidance.

“We have also met with union leaders to start the discussion about how to improve communication. There were several ideas discussed at the meeting, some of which have already been put in place. We look forward to continued discussions.”

In a December letter to the board of directors, Gowing noted, “November payroll went smoother and had fewer questions associated with pay concerns. July and August payroll included payroll issues involving summer school pay, step increases, and deductions.”

According to Gowing, September payroll included issues involving step increases, deductions and contributions. In addition, Gowing said for September payroll, “We created a Google form that allowed staff to submit questions/concerns about their paychecks. We had 243 entries, which represented 43 percent of paychecks issued.

October payroll had fewer issues, she said. “However, we discovered that some problems were not completely corrected in September and carried over into October.”

According to Gowing, district office staff went to all buildings on the October payday to help answer specific questions about pay and paychecks.

“We had 137 entries recorded in the Google document, which represented 23 percent of paychecks issued,” Gowing said.

November payroll had 40 questions/concerns posted on the Google form, representing 7 percent of paychecks issued for that pay period. “Of these, less than half required actual corrections,” stated Gowing. “This number is more typical of a normal payroll cycle due to our timecards process.”

Gowing added that, currently the department has 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,” reported Gowing. “While we made ourselves available to meet with staff when they requested a meeting, now that staff have learned more and have made the corrections on our end, we are now reaching out to meet with staff in their buildings and departments if there is anything unresolved.

“The only area we anticipate questions going forward is around timecards because we still have a paper process. It will be fully addressed when we are completely converted to electronic processes.” 

In her staff recommendation, Gowing said that the finance team understands the staff’s confusion about their paycheck receipts, along with deductions and contributions.

“We are developing tools and processes that will help staff better understand their paycheck information,” said Gowing. She also explained that they are finalizing a presentation that will help staff understand each line item on their paycheck receipts including PERS, 403(b) and other important financial planning tools.

“We are working to offer a benefits fair to which we would invite our benefit vendors to be onsite to present their products and to help educate staff on how to best utilize the benefits we offer,” added Gowing. “We look forward to becoming familiar with staff on a more personal level as we meet them to address their individual needs.”

Nancy Hall, a consultant and retired finance director who serves through the Oregon Association of School Business Officials (OASBO), was hired by the district to review its businesses processes. In a Dec. 5 report to the school board obtained by The Sentinel through the district office, Hall said she was approached by administrative staff at SLSD last August to provide support to the district’s finance department.

Hall entered into a contract with the OASBO to provide her services.

According to Hall, she provided similar services to a variety of school districts through OASBO, including Lebanon Community Schools, Brookings-Harbor School District and Hood River County School District.

“There have been several issues that have come up that I would like to make note of to the board,” Hall wrote in her analysis of the district.

The first, she said, is the challenge faced in the finance department when key positions were not filled.

“This void created a need for one person to fill three full time positions starting in June, which was also a critical time of year,” she wrote. “Payroll was especially impacted as final pay for fiscal year 2021-22 was required, plus the new fiscal year 2022-23 had to be set up. New employees were being hired, and all had to be set up in the system.”

In addition, Hall explained that staff from other departments were called upon to help with the process, which presented its own challenges with getting staff trained and entering information correctly.

“The two open positions in the finance department were filled at the very end of August, which also required intensive training be provided,” said Hall. “Catching up after several months without key staff is an almost impossible task but it is being accomplished. Districts across the state are being challenged to hire new staff as fewer people are applying for the jobs.”

As an example, Hood River County School District posted for a position in May and eventually received one application — in October — despite having contracted with two outside recruiting firms.

During this period of transition, Hall noted that several payroll issues came up that required extra attention. Among them, 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 have gone out to all staff, as well as a Google sheet for staff to log their questions, and all but the most individual concerns that involve other agencies have been answered,” said Hall. “It will take time for all new staff to be fully trained and I am impressed with how quickly this is being accomplished. Multiple administrative staff meetings have taken place and multiple communications have been sent to all staff.

“Continued and timely communication to all groups should be required.”

Hall is helping the district with correcting errors and is assisting with the district’s audit, along with helping to train new staff in the district office.

 

This is a developing story and The Sentinel is continuing to reach out to district and union leadership.