Seattle school managers get questionable OT payments

by: Essex Porter Updated:


Select Seattle Public School managers are making a staggering amount of overtime they're not entitled to. And the district is spending millions on a public benefit unheard of in the private sector.

The findings are from an exclusive KIRO 7 investigation into Seattle Public Schools.

Last March, we obtained a 12-page audit that launched a months-long inquiry on how the district manages money meant to educate children.

Through public record requests, we acquired more than 100,000 records distilled to create the audit. Then we went digging for five months, obtaining and analyzing even more data to learn that the district could save $2.8 million just by following its own guidelines on overtime and stopping sick leave cash out payments.

"The reception that we receive has been positive, they're always appreciative of the issues we raise," said Andrew Medina, Seattle Schools auditor.

When asked if the district takes action on his audits, Medina replied, "That's where I would say: yet to be determined."

Medina works directly for the school board. He was hired as an extra financial control after the Silas Potter embezzlement scandal.

One of his major audit conclusions: select salaried employees are getting overtime pay under "special agreements" with their supervisors.

"The guidelines available from the HR department indicate that exempt employees are not to be paid overtime," Medina said.

He also found not every exempt employee is allowed the benefit and that the practice is open to abuse. We found the policy is likely unfair.

"Our interpretation is that it really shouldn't be applied to a select few individuals," said Medina.

For our investigation, we narrowed the focus to exempt N010 employees, or management-level staffers not eligible for overtime.

We uncovered that the exempt manager making the most overtime is Gregg Neilson, the radio station supervisor at Nathan Hale High School.

In the last two and a half years, Neilson has made almost $70,000 in overtime on top of his nearly $80,000 salary.

KIRO 7 asked if it made sense for Neilson to make a six-figure salary for running a non-commercial radio station.

"I think what we really need to look at is the person's responsibilities," said Assistant Superintendent of Operations Pegi McEvoy.

Nevertheless, McEvoy told us she was so concerned about overtime for exempt employees she eliminated it in August 2012 for people in her departments, which includes transportation.

However, after our interview, we double-checked district records and found employees working for McEvoy still receiving overtime despite being ineligible.

Digging into the data, we found Transportation Analyst Cheryl Martin, Transportation Manager Michele Drorbaugh and Team Lead for Intervention and Transportation Steve Richard all made overtime in 2013 after McEvoy said she banned the practice.

Click here to see KIRO 7's interactive graphs showing which exempt managers made the most OT.

Even while poring over more than a 100,000 records, large sick leave cash out totals stood out in data sets.

Seattle Public School employees are allowed to trade in their sick time for money.

According to a 2013 employee benefits survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management, only 4 percent of companies offer sick leave cash outs.

"One of the things that we find in the public sector is that sometimes people are getting that as a benefit and that's part of the reason they come to the district and they think they're entitled, when they come to work, to get that cash out," explained McEvoy.

This announcement from last year, spells out the policy.

Many employees who have a reserve amount of sick time can cash out the remaining balance at 25 percent of their hourly pay.

In two and a half years, the cash outs have cost the district nearly $2.5 million, a KIRO 7 investigation showed.

"I do know that we are very conservative compared to other public agencies," McEvoy said.

ElDoris Turner nabbed the biggest cash out during that time, netting $22,000 in 2012.

Turner abruptly retired the same year as principal of Van Asselt Elementary. Seattle police are still investigating whether Turner stole or just mismanaged $30,000.

KIRO 7 asked McEvoy how the district justifies the payments when SPS is constantly working to balance its budget. Just this year, the district announced a hiring and spending freeze to save $2.5 million.

"I think that's a question we need to ask HR," McEvoy said.

The district said it follows Washington state law which makes sick leave cash outs perfectly legal for many government workers.

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