Two employees of the Chilton County School District in Alabama have been asked to repay tens of thousands in wages earned due to an error in the district’s billing system.
Christie Payne, a child nutrition manager at Verbena High School, recently received a letter saying that the district accidentally overpaid her $23,465 over a six-year period dating back to 2016. She can either pay $3,910.90 a year for six years, or $325.91 a month for 72 months.
Just a few days later, Shellie Smith, a former nurse turned educator, received a similar letter saying she owes the district around $33,000 dating back to 2018 due to a financial snafu.
Tracy LeSieur, a UniServ director who represents Chilton County members part of the Alabama Education Association, confirmed that both women received correspondence requesting payment and that they will each be assigned an attorney to help them navigate the legal process.
“[The Chilton County School District is] working with our attorneys as part of their membership,” LeSieur said. “Our members get this free service of liability. They have reached out to our attorneys.”
Lesieur added that the district has two levels of educational employees: “certified” members, which includes teachers, administrators, and superintendents, and a “classified” level for custodians, bus drivers, and maintenance personnel.
Smith reportedly owes more money than Payne because she was considered a “certified” member and received a higher rate of pay.
Payne said the district told her that the school’s billing system mistakenly paid her extra money every year because she was credited with having too many years of experience after getting promoted to lunchroom manager.
According to a letter she received from Chilton County Superintendent Jason Griffin, she “should have started at step 0 of the manager schedule but was given years of experience as an assistant.”
The same thing happened to Smith, who was credited with several years of teaching experience when she started working for the district “instead of starting over at step 0” after leaving the nursing profession to become an educator.
Griffin and the Chilton County School Board released a statement saying that it will continue investigating the matter to see if any other employees were overpaid.
“We cannot comment on specific personnel matters,” the statement reads. “The Chilton County Board of Education recently discovered several overpayments. These overpayments date back several years and were initiated prior to the tenure of the current finance department, superintendent, and board.”
“Under Board policy and the law, board officials are required to recoup any overpayments,” the statement continues. “We are mindful of the financial impact that this matter can have on our employees, and we are working to balance that impact with our obligation to recover the funds.”
When asked if a statute of limitations exists in such cases, the Alabama Education Association responded, “Until we receive and review the Chilton County Board of Education’s documentation, we won’t be in a position to comment on any potential legal issues.”
Lesieur said that both Payne and Smith have started the legal process with the AEA. When asked how many employees have come forward, she said, “Only 2 so far. I understand a bus driver came forward but his was handled back in January… He came to me back in January and AEA assigned an attorney.”
She added that non-AEA members are legally “kind of on their own.”
Legal experts say most teachers and school district employees are required to sign labor contracts that specify their exact rate of pay and that repayment depends on the exact wording in the contract.
“Generally, if an employer does make a mistake and they pay you something you didn’t earn, they are entitled to get that back,” said Heather Leonard, an employment and labor attorney that’s familiar with the case. “It’s just like if you made a mistake and overpaid for something, you are like ‘oops, I gave you a one-hundred-dollar bill, instead of a ten-dollar bill’, the cashier can’t go ‘no takebacks, sorry, you gave this to me.’ It’s the same thing.”
But time can be a factor in these kinds of cases.
“The longer it’s been paid, the more likely it is these employees will have a stronger argument to keep the money,” said Leonard.