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Years before demand letters and garnishments, Alabama school system considered forgiving salary overpayments
An e-mail filed in court documents shows that as overpayments continued, school system officials weighed their options for years
She had no clue it had been happening.
When Christie Payne received the letter from her employer, Chilton County Schools, in April 2022 — a letter demanding that she repay more than $23,000 she’d allegedly been overpaid due to a years-long payroll error — she was shocked.
“I had no idea this was happening,” Payne said after receiving the letter last year. “Now I have seven days to fix a six-year mistake made by the payroll department.”
Payne, a lunchroom manager at Verbena High School, and another employee, Shellie Smith, would soon file suit against the system’s superintendent in his official capacity, alleging that the demand letter was an “illegal act.”
Now, documents released as part of that suit are providing a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that went into correcting the alleged payroll errors.
A newly-released court document shows that years before they sent demand letters asking employees to correct the system’s own error, years before they began garnishing employees’ paychecks, at least some officials with the Chilton County School System had considered another option: forgiveness.
An e-mail released as part of the court proceedings reveals that as early as 2017, some Chilton County School System officials considered forgiving what they viewed as salary overpayments made to employees at no fault of their own.
The e-mail, sent from a law firm to school system officials, includes a resolution to be considered by the Chilton County School Board which would have allowed the system to correct the payroll issues moving forward “without penalty or compensation to the affected employees.”
“Mr. Jackson is sending the below resolution for the meeting,” the e-mail said.
According to the document, the e-mail was sent by a representative of Jackson & Jackson law firm, which now operates as Inman & Associates. The firm has long represented government entities in Chilton County, according to local reports. Listed as recipients of the email are Adriane Dennis, whose LinkedIn lists her as an assistant superintendent in the system, and Tommy Glasscock, who served as superintendent from 2014 until 2018.
“Be it resolved that the Chilton County Board of Education employees responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of personnel records are hereby authorized to correct the coding and/or related information of any employee salary, based on degree attained and years of service, without penalty or compensation to the affected employee,” the resolution included in the email stated. “The effective date of the correction shall be November 1, 2017.”
It is unclear whether the full school board was provided the resolution. Members did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Records of board meetings from around the time the email was sent do not reflect any action taken on a resolution forgiving the overpayments or whether the resolution was considered by the full board at all. The board did, however, meet in closed session on both October 23 and November 20, according to its records. The October closed session, the meeting’s minutes indicate, was, in part, “to discuss employee wages and benefits.”
The demand letter sent to Payne in 2022 stated that her salary overpayments had begun during the 2016-2017 school year and continued for years. The newly released email, then, also raises questions about how long overpayments were allowed to continue after the system became aware of the issue.
Lawyers for Christie Payne and her co-plaintiff, Shellie Smith, have subpoenaed the law firm that sent the email for more information about the exchange. The subpoena requests information regarding the law firm’s relationship with the school system as well as any documents provided to the firm by the system concerning employee overpayments.
Payne and Smith are not the only employees impacted by the overpayments.
Tread has spoken with multiple other individuals who received demand letters over the school system’s payroll error.
One employee, Frances Allison, chose to go ahead and pay the school system the money they claimed she owed. She feared that if she didn’t, the police would show up at her home.
Another employee, a bus driver who asked that his name be withheld, said after receiving the demand letter that he didn’t plan to pay the money back. In April, the system began garnishing his paycheck for over $400 a month without his consent.
It’s unclear how the legal case against the system’s former superintendent will impact employees like Frances Allison or the defiant bus driver, if at all, but it seems unlikely the legal battle will be resolved quickly as it slowly heads toward trial. The system’s new superintendent has not yet commented on the situation publicly.
So far, every employee impacted by the school system’s alleged overpayments interviewed by Tread has said they believe they should not have to repay money that was given to them in error. Officials, they said, simply need to do the right thing.
“The little people are the ones that’s taking the hurt,” the bus driver said of the ordeal. “Most of us, it takes everything we got to make it. People are just struggling to get by and pay the bills and then get hit with something like this.”
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