Stop the payroll madness!
No accounting for L.A. Unified's payroll fiasco
By Bob Sipchen (Monday's column, March 19, 2007)
Six weeks ago the Los Angeles Unified School District switched on a $95-million computerized system for paying the district's 48,000 teachers and other employees. The soft sproing heard from Pacoima to Palms was the sound of Southern California coming unglued.
Initially, someone in the superintendent's office told my colleague Joel Rubin that only 1,000 or so of the district's employees had run into snafus. The district quickly revised this number up to about 7,000 of the district's 77,000 employees. But by Thursday, A.J. Duffy, the teachers union's charmingly cocky president, was putting the number of paycheck casualties between 20,000 and 25,000.
Oddly enough, I think Duffy (who last week inexplicably ended his many-months-long refusal to speak to me) may be underestimating the mayhem, given the number of teachers who tell me that payroll fiasco rants continue to dominate teacher lounges.
Giselle Meneses, for example, recounted with a gradually intensifying exasperation her story of what happened after bureaucracy and technology mated to spawn the beast known universally as "The System."
On Feb. 5 — the first day of the new approach to payroll — the Loma Vista elementary teacher peeked into her bank account and saw that The System had automatically deposited her usual paycheck. "The next day I got a paper check ….So I called the district to find out what was going on."
Meneses says she was put on hold for more than an hour before finally getting through to a human. She explained her problem. Then the line went dead. After another hour on hold she got through again. She explained her case. Click.
Meneses knew better than to do anything with the paper check. But she had no idea that The System had slurped the direct deposit back out of her account. Then her husband realized that they were inexplicably broke.
More calls went unanswered, she says. She went ahead and deposited the check and it cleared. She figured she was OK.
The next payday her check was for $40.69. A voice at district headquarters asserted that The System had paid her twice the month before. Meneses found herself locked into that circular sumo dance known as: Prove that you're not lying about the alleged foul-up.
"I started calling everybody at the district," Meneses says.
Eventually she reached someone at the district. "Hold on, I'm going to transfer you."
"No, no, no, no, no!" Meneses pleaded. The line went dead.
I'll spare you the additional indignities Meneses says she suffered.
Stress aside, she and her husband were able to weather the financial mishaps. But many teachers live paycheck to paycheck, and I've heard from several who failed to make payments to landlords or child-care providers as a result of the foul-ups.
The System reportedly wrote one teacher a check for $11,000. Another testified that The System paid her 20 cents total for the month. Many say that The System refuses to pay for holidays. Others note that The System charged them five times their usual union dues.
The district has cut emergency checks to help with the hardship. But teachers often have to go to the downtown Beaudry Avenue headquarters to pick them up, sometimes waiting many hours. Principals must assign substitutes. Because The System can't seem to account for the various campuses where a sub might work in a given month, this group of educators has been walloped particularly hard.
For a while, I was hearing almost as much rage against the teachers union's alleged lack of responsiveness as the district's. Now the union has hired a law firm and has given the district 45 days to straighten out the mess or risk a lawsuit. Duffy has threatened to send union members marching in the streets if the problems aren't resolved.
This is exactly the kind of mess a teacher's union should throw fits about. I encourage the teachers to build public stocks in front of the Beaudry Avenue headquarters for any bureaucrat who can be proven to have willfully done anything to keep them from getting paid.
Unfortunately, I can't find a good scapegoat.
"There's really no good time to make a payroll change," says Chuck Burbridge, the district's chief financial officer, the guy upon whose lap the project landed last year when the chief information officer retired.
Critics now ask why the district couldn't have rolled The System out more slowly, but Burbridge says running the old and new software simultaneously would have caused even more problems. And although plenty of teachers are ready to blame the software that's causing payroll conniptions (and hence the fools who selected it), I have only to remember new editing systems introduced here at The Times to know what Burbridge means when he says: "The history of big system implementations is not a happy tale."
The old system, at 40, was a patchwork of databases that were often out of sync, Burbridge says. Staffers, he adds, were making 20,000 adjustments by hand every month. Auditors had been clamoring to change it for more than a decade. No administrator had the stomach to do it, Burbridge says, because "they knew it would be hellish."
I'd love to help my teacher friends find catharsis by recommending that Burbridge be clamped into stocks and publicly pelted with cafeteria yams. But I think he's probably right in predicting that the day will come when people will thank the bureaucrats who pushed this imperfect improvement forward.
Even Meneses might sympathize if she had heard Burbridge's sad little laugh when he added: "Today is not that day."