School board member Joyce Morley told school district staff, “At some point, we’ve got to take some responsibility. This is not a one-person mistake.” EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

DeKalb Schools’ new salaries to cost millions more than expected

DeKalb County School District officials said Wednesday it will cost $9 million to correct missteps in a salary schedule that had some employees receiving checks with penny pay hikes instead of the hundreds of dollars expected.

The adjustments, approved by the DeKalb County Board of Education during a special meeting, are to be completed by the end of March. Salary adjustments will cost $19.5 million, about $9 million more than the school board approved in January, and $11.5 million more than the numbers initially indicated in a compensation and classification study released last summer.

Changes will be reflected on pay schedules for teachers, lead teachers, counselors, and elementary and secondary assistant principals, said Linda Woodard, who is running the human resources department on an interim basis. Affected employees will receive pay retroactive to January 1, she said.

School board member Allyson Gevertz mentioned during the board meeting that no outside consultant will be used to make the changes, and that officials were saying fixing the schedule would take weeks as opposed to several months, the timetable given earlier this month.

Michael Bell, DeKalb’s chief financial officer, said the additional $9 million likely will come from the district’s fund balance, which began at about $123 million in July 2018. That fund already is being tapped to support an operating school budget that is higher than expected tax revenues.

“If this goes forward as indicated, the fund balance is expected to decline to about 93-plus million dollars,” Bell said.

The compensation study from last summer suggested pay changes to make the district competitive with other metro Atlanta districts as it sought to attract employees, including teachers. The salary schedule the board approved in January reflected changes to numbers first discussed in that study.

But when employees received emails from the district’s human capital management department, HR’s official name, they took to social media saying a lot was not right.

Cynthia Trapanese, who expected a $3,000 pay increase and saw much less, to the tune of two pennies a pay period through August, said she’s still confused after hearing it will cost the district millions to address the problems.

“It feels good that they seem to be taking action and acknowledging they’re trying to get it right,” she said. “What happened to the plan from January? It is still curious. What happened? And why now?”

Woodard said addressing flaws in the schedule will happen in four phases, which include gathering and uploading data, and new salaries should be processed by the payroll department by March 29. Accuracy checks are included in each phase, she said.

She added that at least four retirees who previously worked with the district would return to assist with getting the new numbers rolled out. More could be called if necessary, Woodard said.

DeKalb School Superintendent Steve Green speaks at the school board’s meeting Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. The board approved changes to a salary schedule that debuted last month but gave some employees only additional pennies when they expected more. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Board member Joyce Morley said she was concerned about the time frame for the turnaround, questioning how six months of work could be fixed in weeks.

“How do you make a $9 million mistake?” she said. “On many occasions, we seem to be messing up to clean up.”

Bell insisted the mistake was not the responsibility of his department, saying finance officials used figures received from human capital management.

“Well, if it wasn’t right, it was a mistake,” Morley countered. “At some point, we’ve got to take some responsibility. This is not a one-person mistake.”

Morley indicated Superintendent Steve Green should be taking more responsibility for the error, suggesting blame should not fall solely to former human capital management chief Bernice Gregory. Gregory resigned two weeks ago after the schedule was rolled out, but insists her departure was for other reasons.

“Dr. Green, I have to just look at you, as the leader of this district,” Morley said. “Mediocrity just does not stand in my place.”

Green said the fixes would be made in time for the district to send out new teacher contracts, which typically are received this time of year and indicate rates of pay, among other things, for the coming year.

“What I commit to you is to double down and do what’s necessary,” he said. “I commit to you to make sure this does not happen again. I let you down, and I commit to getting it right.”

The adjusted salary schedule means more than $38 million will be needed to pay employees at their new salaries, a number that concerned board member Vickie Turner. Bell, the chief financial officer, said it is not a cost the district will incur every year.

“Can we fiscally handle that?” Turner asked. “I don’t want to give and take away. When we started out this process, we started at about $8 million thinking that would be our process. Then we go from $10 million to $14 million.

“To sit here today and think where we are … ”

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