A public school teachers union in north central Ilinois is taking legal action against its local school board in a case created by a former board employee who may have been corrupt as well as deficient. Last week, the Woodland Education Association filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board alleging the board lacks the authority to demand all at once the more than $200,000 in overpayments over four years to active and retired teachers. The union has expressed its willingness to repay all the money, but not until certain details have been resolved.
The Woodland School District encompasses Streator, Illinois, a city of about 15,000 located 80 miles southwest of Chicago. During the 2004-05 through 2007-08 academic years, the school board disbursed $217,360.96 in overpayments to a couple dozen current and former teachers in amounts ranging from $300 to $9,000. According to School Superintendent Doug Foster, the board’s former bookkeeper approached him in March 2009 that the payments had been erroneous. The school hired an independent auditor to determine the nature of the miscalculations. The consultant concluded the errors were a product of the bookkeeper’s inability to understand Illinois Teachers’ Retirement system data. The school board’s attorney, T.J. Wilson, argues that whether the overpayments were deliberate or accidental, they must be returned. “It’s the school board’s hope that it is not necessary to take legal action,” he said. “But if they need to, they will use all legal methods necessary to regain those funds.”
The union wants to know just how much its members owe – and over what period. “We just want to know what we owe, so we can figure out how to repay it,” remarked WEA President Deidre Toler. Unfortunately, the school board is insisting that it won’t agree to a new contract with the union until it gets back all the money. As the existing collective bargaining agreement expired last August, teachers are likely to be without a contract for some time, especially as each party has a right of appeal following the Illinois labor board’s decision.
The dispute is the result of a former bookkeeper whose honesty as well as competence are suspect. The employee in question currently faces a charge in an unrelated case in Livingston County, Illinois of falsifying nearly $130,000 in checks; authorities thus far have recovered around $50,000. This is one of those cases in which union members, however indirectly, have gotten the shaft by management. Either way, it doesn’t feel good.