LAND O'LAKES — Cheryl Ferro has worked as a guidance counselor in Pasco County schools since 1985.
She recently learned that the school district has overpaid her since day one — and now it wants a portion of the money back.
Ferro is not alone.
A recent state audit of wages revealed the district had overpaid 17 employees by $120,998 over several years and underpaid another 26 workers by $169,807. After the human resources department confirmed the numbers, assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose sent a letter to everyone who was affected to tell them about the administration's plans to fix the problem.
The folks who had received too little money would get all they were owed. Those who got too much would have to reimburse the district two years' worth of the amount, the maximum allowed by state law.
"I was devastated," Ferro said, describing her feelings after learning the district had continued its error for 22 years and she might owe $19,524.
By limiting the repayments to two years, the district would reduce the amount she owed to $1,412.
Ferro also stands to lose a year on the salary schedule because of an error in counting her years of experience when she was hired. That could cost her $850 a year.
"I did not make a mistake here. I even questioned the level of experience they were giving me, and I was provided a reasonable explanation," said Ferro, 47, a former county guidance counselor of the year. "Now, 22 years later, they're telling me, 'Oops, we goofed and you owe us all this money.' … This is wrong."
Upset, Ferro called School Board member Marge Whaley on Friday seeking some information and advice. Whaley, who heard about the situation in mid July, also had some concerns, but they weren't the same as Ferro's.
At first, Whaley said, "I felt the superintendent had made the right decision, because it's our mistake. So that seemed fair to me."
The problem, she continued, was that the solution that superintendent Heather Fiorentino had selected involved going against employees' contracts in relation to overpayment and underpayment.
The contract states that instructional personnel would receive full repayment if underpaid and repay in full any amount they were overpaid. Noninstructional personnel would get just two years of repayment if underpaid and return just two years of overpayments.
"(Fiorentino) can't do anything outside the contract language that isn't in the budget without board approval," Whaley said.
Moreover, she suggested, any employees or former employees who had been over- or underpaid in the past and who were not able to get the same deal afforded to this group might be upset.
"I am concerned that once again, something was sent out to staff without the attorney for the board being consulted or the School Board, especially in a matter as serious as this," Whaley said.
'The right thing to do'
Fiorentino said she planned to ask the board on Tuesday to approve her proposal to fully repay all underpaid employees and to limit overpaid employees' debt to two years. She acknowledged that the board might reject the plan, but said she felt it was on solid ground after having consulted with labor lawyers and briefed board members.
"It's just the right thing to do, and it's within the law," Fiorentino said.
She discounted the notion that other employees might complain that these workers are getting special dispensation, stating that the vast majority of pay inconsistencies are discovered within a few months, and not two or more years later. This situation represented the first wide-scale audit of all employees, and that's why so many discrepancies turned up.
Most of the problems involved the district giving the wrong amount of credit for experience to employees.
"I know this was our fault," Fiorentino said. "You've got to be fair."
She added that she would like to write off the entire debt owed by overpaid employees. But she quoted the Florida Constitution, which states that school districts may not "lend or use its taxing power or credit to aid any corporation, association, partnership or person."
"We don't think we can ignore it," she said. "We're trying to make it as least painful as we can, be mindful of the law and be respectful that we are stewards of taxpayer dollars."
Ferro wasn't convinced. She noted that Polk County allowed any overpaid employees discovered during its wage audit to keep the money if the error was discovered six or more years later.
"Polk is a nearby county … that was able to make some accommodations for their employees. I'm not sure why that state law would apply to Pasco and not there," she said. "This whole thing is bizarre to me. I truly don't understand why employees would be punished for something that was not their fault."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.