- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

A Fairfax County, Va., teacher's tax nightmare is over. The District of Columbia public school system, which paid him $2,000 although he wasn't an employee, has provided the correct 1999 income information $0 to the IRS.

Robert Stewart, who was accepted to teach in the D.C. school system, never took the job, but somehow ended up on the payroll. He received three paychecks and a 1999 income tax form from the D.C. government. Two checks show he was paid at $103 per hour and a third shows a rate of $152 per hour.

Mr. Stewart had returned the uncashed checks to the school system, but was frustrated in his attempts to resolve the matter and straighten out his tax information. He and his wife, Tara, called and left messages with various D.C. government and school agencies but got no response. After a month of constant calls and messages, someone finally called the Stewarts back.

On March 4, a corrected W-2 income-tax form arrived at their Springfield home via certified mail, said Mrs. Stewart, who also received an apology from a school spokeswoman.

"Now, we can only assume that the school system will take the appropriate steps to make sure our 2000 taxes are correct," Mrs. Stewart said.

Mr. Stewart is not the only non-employee the D.C. school system erroneously paid. School finance officials have issued stern collection letters to two other people. They are trying to recover $2,912.67 that was automatically deposited into a D.C. woman's bank account, and $1,018.93 that another person got by cashing one of the payroll checks.

Freya Umayan, a consultant with the school system's payroll office, said stop-payment orders were issued on all other outstanding checks, and a continuing investigation revealed no additional cases of mistakenly issued paychecks.

Officials have started to piece together clues about how the mistakes occurred. Apparently, the payroll technicians responsible for issuing the checks never even looked at employee time sheets, said Dionne Williams, a spokeswoman for Donald A. Rickford, chief financial officer for D.C. schools. Instead, the workers simply paid everyone at the school for a 40-hour week, regardless of the hours they actually worked.

That leaves open the possibility that legitimate school employees on the roster at several schools may have been overpaid, Ms. Williams said. But so far, no additional collection efforts have been made.

An internal investigation is continuing with help from the office of D.C. Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt.

Mr. Rickford said the three employees responsible for these errors were fired in early February for poor work, before Mr. Stewart's case came to light.

Mr. Stewart, who teaches third grade in Virginia, filled out an application at a D.C. schools job fair last August to teach at Oyster Elementary School. When he discovered his Spanish wasn't good enough to teach at the bilingual school, school officials gave him a position at Wheatley Elementary.

In the meantime, the Fairfax county school system offered him a job. He accepted, and told D.C. schools he was no longer available. Since he could never seem to reach a real person on the phone, he had to leave that information on voice mail, he said.

Mr. Rickford said the paperwork Mr. Stewart filled out at the job fair constituted a contract and acceptance of employment.

The wrong-paycheck episode was the latest in a string of paycheck problems for D.C. schools. In January, thousands of school employees' W-2 forms contained errors and had to be reissued. In December and January, dozens of angry teachers who received no check at all clogged the school system headquarters three paydays in a row.

Although most of these teachers eventually received their back pay, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman acknowledged in a recent interview that many paychecks still have missing or incorrect information on the stubs.

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