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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Anger, tears and finger-pointing as Gaston schools’ payroll problems persist

Bus driver Michelle Williams protests before Monday's Gaston County school board meeting. She says the district owes her about $300 from work done in October.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Bus driver Michelle Williams protests before Monday's Gaston County school board meeting. She says the district owes her about $300 from work done in October.

More than a year after Gaston County Schools switched payroll systems, hundreds of employees still face problems with pay, retirement contributions and payroll deductions. District officials acknowledge it’s now affecting tax filing for some staff.

In September district officials told frustrated employees they were trying to fix problems with the Oracle Cloud payroll system that launched in January 2022. But at Monday’s school board meeting employees and officials agreed that unresolved problems from last year linger, while other challenges remain.

Melinda Goddard, a second-year teacher at Pinewood Elementary, told the school board she’s still trying to collect pay that’s due her from last year. She broke into tears as she pleaded for help, saying she had brought her documents to the meeting.

“I have called, emailed and gone in person to try to get this resolved, and I’ve been more than patient,” she said. “How do you expect teachers to stay? Especially new ones?”

Elizabeth Haywood, a Costner Elementary teacher, says she was overpaid last year, and now she’s expected to pay income tax on money she’s trying to return.

“I am happy to repay the funds,” she said. “I have the funds and I am ready to repay it, but I feel like I’m getting no help in doing so.”

Laura Farmer, who retired from teaching in March and started working as a substitute, says she has experienced multiple problems getting her pay and deductions straightened out.

“The taxpayers in this county should be furious. I am,” she said. “Trust is gone. Hope is gone.”

Still trying to catch up


Chief Financial Officer Gary Hoskins said Gaston County Schools still has about 500 unresolved issues reported by employees. That’s down from 1,834 reported in the first nine months of 2022, he said.

“The ongoing payrolls over the last few months have been much cleaner. What we’re trying to do is catch up on all the stuff that went wrong back in 2022,” he said.

Gaston schools Chief Financial Officer Gary Hoskins addresses the school board Monday as frustrated employees look on.
Gaston County Board of Education YouTube screen shot
Gaston schools Chief Financial Officer Gary Hoskins addresses the school board Monday as frustrated employees look on.

But he also acknowledged ongoing, widespread problems with retirement payments and payroll deductions. For instance, retirement payments that have been deducted from paychecks are five months behind on being credited to employees, he said.

And Hoskins said W2 forms for income taxes had various errors. That comes from a separate vendor, he said.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has given school districts two options for modernizing payroll systems. At the start of 2022, Gaston County was the first to adopt the Oracle system. So far it appears to be the only one using it.

Thirteen months later, Gaston board members talked about ditching the system or even suing the vendor. But Hoskins said the only other option, a system called Tyler Munis, has created problems in New Hanover County, the first North Carolina district to try that system.

“I would not want to put our people, our teachers, our staff, through another computer conversion,” Hoskins said. “At this point it would be devastating, in my opinion.”

Who’s to blame?


Superintendent Jeff Booker did not address the payroll problems Monday. Board member Robbie Lovelace said Booker has done good things for the school system but the payroll disaster threatens to undermine that.

“It’s just a dark cloud, Dr. Booker, that’s hovering over everything good that you’ve done for Gaston County Schools,” she said. “This is how we’re going to be remembered, is through Oracle.”

Lovelace relayed a conversation with a teacher who said she doesn’t trust anyone in Gaston County administration or on the school board. “She said, ‘Where have y’all been for 13 months?’ ” Lovelace said, as the spectators applauded.

Board member A.M. Stephens III, elected in November, put the blame on the state.

“We’ve been mandated to modernize our systems, right?” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs that we’ve been given two systems that are broken.”

Board Chairman Jeff Ramsey also voiced his support of Booker and the chief financial officer, calling them “the best of the best in the state of North Carolina.”

“I can tell you, people like Elon Musk or anybody had this, they couldn’t have figured it out either,” Ramsey said.

Vice Chair Dot Cherry suggested outsourcing payroll support, noting that the district is short-staffed: “If we can get some good contract staff that knows finance, I think that really would help all the way around to get some of these issues resolved.”

'Stable and running as expected'


Board members repeatedly apologized for the impact on the district’s roughly 5,000 employees. But the bottom line is no one can say when paychecks will be consistently accurate and reliable.

When asked about Gaston’s problems before Monday’s meeting, Department of Public Instruction Communications Director Blair Rhoades said the system was, “stable and running as expected.”

“Gaston County is working with individual employees to correct errors in payroll that occurred prior to system stabilization,” she said. “Gaston is also making progress with corrected retirement information with the Office of the State Treasurer.”

Rhoades did not respond to a question about whether other districts are using Oracle Cloud. Hoskins told the Gaston board that Guilford County Schools plans to adopt it.

And, he said, the Department of Public Instruction is scheduled to switch to Oracle for its own payroll this fall.


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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.