Teachers sue school district; Dispute stems from deductions made to reclaim overpayment

by Tom Coombe -

The Ely School District is being sued by 17 of its teachers.
According to court documents, the district first mistakenly overpaid the teachers during the 2017-18 school year, then reclaimed the money by making a series of payroll deductions.
Those deductions were unauthorized and in violation of the law, according to a lawsuit filed by teacher Krista Moyer.
Most of the remaining teachers affected by the deduction have since signed on to the suit, according to school officials. Their names have not been released as of the Echo’s Thursday deadline.
School board members met in closed session Monday night with district attorney Kelly Klun, as allowed by law, to address the pending litigation filed in St. Louis County conciliation court.
Moyer, who lives in Embarrass, said Wednesday that “by unilaterally taking money from our paychecks, the district didn’t give us the time to create a payment schedule that works for us. As teachers, we don’t make a fortune, and this has made making our ends meet that much more difficult.”
At issue are payroll calculation mistakes that arose after the school district and Ely teachers settled a new two-year contract.
The deal eliminated the first two steps in the teachers’ salary scale to allow the district to offer a higher starting salary, but district staff mistakenly adjusted the pay for returning teachers not yet at the top of the scale - increasing their pay .
It took several months for the mistake to be discovered.
“The bottom line was the district business office did not apply the new salary schedule correctly,” said Greg Miller, a field representative for Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. “It wasn’t caught until well after the contract was ratified and the new pay was put out to the employees.”
According to an attachment to Moyer’s suit, the district overpaid her by $1,088.10 over 13 pay periods from Aug. 25, 2017 through February 9, 2018.
School officials discovered the error and deducted $155.44 from Moyer’s next seven paychecks, from Feb. 23, 2018 through May 18, 2018.
Moyer said she did not provide written authorization for the deduction, and cited state law that forbids employers from making any deduction “to recover claimed indebtedness unless the employee, after the claimed indebtedness has arisen, voluntarily authorizes the employer in writing to make this deduction.”
Moyer, who is represented by an attorney from Education Minnesota - also cited state law that indicates employers who violate the provisions “shall be liable in a civil action for twice the amount of the deduction or credit taken.”
Moyer is seeking $2,176.20, twice the amount taken from her pay, as well as the court filing fee of $75.
Attorney Adosh Unni of Education Minnesota offered further clarification Thursday.
“When there is a claim of overpayment to an employee, the law requires employers to work with employees on a mutually agreeable payback schedule to avoid an undue burden,” said Unni. “In this case, the school district failed to do that. Our hope is that we can work with the district to come to a resolution.”
Klun released the following statement Thursday on behalf of the district:
“From the perspective of the district, the teachers are not contesting that they did not receive their salary as bargained for, rather the issue involves the apportionment of their salary per pay period over the fiscal year.”
She added that the district has fully compensated teachers as required in the 2017-18 contract and the district’s response to the suit will include “in some cases a counterclaim for monies that have been overpaid to certain litigants.”
“The district is committed to ensuring all teachers are paid their bargained salary, while maintaining the district’s due diligence of fiscal oversight to its taxpayers,” said Klun.
The district did not release the names of the other teachers in the suit and Education Minnesota refused to do so
An initial court date of Dec. 26 was set, but superintendent Kevin Abrahamson said the hearing would likely be pushed back into 2019.