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A 2-year wait for retirement pay? Philly schools have a backlog of millions

When one retired principal asked someone in the district's payroll department when she might expect her term pay - somewhere north of $40,000 - the answer astonished her: two years, she was told. "I said, 'Excuse me, are you joking?' " No, she was told. The office is short-staffed.

The Philadelphia School District owes Albert Poppa, a retired school police officer, $23,000 in pay for unused sick, vacation and personal days.
The Philadelphia School District owes Albert Poppa, a retired school police officer, $23,000 in pay for unused sick, vacation and personal days.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Patricia Randzo gave 34 years of her life to city kids, retiring as principal of the school system's Philadelphia Military Academy in April.

Randzo didn't like to spend much time away from the students she worked with, so she had plenty of unused sick, personal, and vacation days when she left the district: roughly $69,000 worth. She was going to use the money to buy a house.

But nearly a year after Randzo left the system, she hasn't bought the house because she's still waiting for her money. And she is not alone: The Philadelphia School District is sitting on a years-long backlog of unpaid termination payouts, some dating to the early 2000s.

One recent retiree was told she would have to wait for two years to get the funds she is owed, despite union contracts that say employees are entitled to the payments in a timely manner – most within 90 days of leaving the district.

"It's ridiculous," Randzo said.

Terms vary for the various labor unions that work within the district, but typically, School District employees are paid out for 100 percent of their unused personal time and 25 percent of their unused sick time during their tenure. The reasons behind the struggle to promptly pay them are complex, blamed on old back-office systems that make it tough to do the needed verifications before checks are cut and an unusually heavy workload for the district's human resources and payroll departments.

The effects of the 2012 doomsday budget also still linger. That year, the school system laid off thousands of employees, including half the staff devoted to processing the payout checks. New labor contracts for most unions also meant a crush of new work for already overburdened departments, officials said.

Uri Monson, the district's chief financial officer, said the problem is improving. An August report by then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz identified a backlog of $6.6 million in payouts owed to more than 5,000 former School District workers; Monson said that, as of November, the number was closer to 4,000 workers, despite the departure of 1,200 staffers who retired or resigned at the end of last school year.

The average wait for a check, Monson said, is down to 14 months from 17, and the total owed is also less.

Still, he said, "this is a bad problem. We know it; we're not where we need to be. But for the first time in years, we're looking at systemic ways of making it better."

Two new employees have been added to help address the backlog, he said. And an outside audit of the termination pay process is expected by the end of the month so that when new financial systems are finally adopted, the district won't be automating bad processes.

"This is as high a priority for me as it's possible to be," Monson said.

Albert Poppa hopes so. Poppa retired in June after nearly 42 years as a school police officer.

"I was a good employee, too," he said in an interview. "When I left, I had a lot of time. That meant I always came to work."

Poppa expected a prompt payment — his contract said within 60 days — of the $23,000 he earned. So far, he hasn't gotten a dime.

"I've gotten a runaround," said Poppa. "I'll call, and they'll say they're shorthanded. They say, 'Let me put you through to somebody,' and then it goes through to a machine, and I never get a call back."

It stings, Poppa said.

"I put almost 42 years in, and they turn around and slap me in the face," he said. "Where's our money?"

Also waiting is Arlette George, who left the district in June 2016 after almost 20 years as a school counselor. Eighteen months in, she's still waiting for the $20,000 she's owed.

"They're cheating me out of my retirement money," said George. "They're violating our contract, and they're making interest on our money."

Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan earned national accolades for her work as principal of Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia. She retired in June after 37 years as a teacher, central office staffer, and principal.

When Kaplan asked someone in payroll when she might expect her term pay – somewhere north of $40,000 – the answer astonished her: Two years, she was told.

"I said, 'Excuse me, are you joking?' and she said, 'No, two years. We're very short-staffed,' " Kaplan said.

Kaplan knows as well as anyone the effects of the awful budget cuts of the early 2010s, having absorbed the jobs of many when times got tough. "When they lay off people at schools, we still have to do their work," Kaplan said.

When the money finally does come through, it won't come with interest. (Kaplan asked.)

"How do you just not pay people?" Kaplan said. "You devote 37 years of your life to a job, and then they tell you they can't pay you the money they owe you."