W-H staffers receiving unearned pay; District trying to find who’s getting extra fees for former duties

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A significant number of longtime Wilmer-Hutchins school district employees have been receiving payments they shouldn’t, according to district officials.

James Damm, the district’s interim superintendent, said he is moving to find out whose paychecks are larger than they should be and to ensure that the excess payments stop at the end of the school year.

“We want to pay a fair salary,” Mr. Damm said.

At issue are the stipends and supplemental pay that many employees receive for working longer schedules, taking on extra responsibilities or working in high-need areas.

The extra pay ranges from $150 a year – for a teacher who coordinates a school’s entries in state academic competitions – to $8,000 annually for school psychologists, who work four weeks longer each year than most school employees.

Mr. Damm said that some employees were receiving stipends for work they haven’t done in years. He said he did not know how many employees were receiving the unwarranted extra pay or how much money it cost the district annually.

When teachers were paid last month – almost two weeks later than originally planned because of the district’s cash-flow problems – their paychecks had a note attached: “Notice: All current supplemental pay and stipends are voided for the school year 2005-2006, pending board approval.”

Mr. Damm said all employees who are receiving legitimate stipends will continue to receive them. He said he hopes the district will even be able to increase the size of some.

In another development, the Texas Rangers have begun a criminal investigation into allegations of TAKS test cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

Last month, a data analysis by The Dallas Morning News found suspect patterns in the test scores of Wilmer and Alta Mesa elementary schools. On the high-stakes third-grade TAKS reading test, Wilmer went from being below the state average to having the state’s highest scale scores in just one year.

After The News’ analysis, the Texas Education Agency launched a full-scale cheating investigation at all of the district’s elementary schools. A report from that investigation is expected sometime within the next few weeks.

If the TEA finds evidence of cheating, it could penalize schools or the entire district by lowering their state ratings. The State Board for Educator Certification could also move to suspend or terminate the state teaching certificates of some school employees.

A criminal investigation could lead to much more severe penalties. Tampering with a state test document is a second-degree felony, punishable by a lengthy prison sentence.