The checks may

still

be in the mail.

But with the Christmas holiday fast approaching, that just won't cut it for some 3,900 Philadelphia School District employees who still get actual paper checks.

Those paychecks were supposed to have been in the employees' hands by last Friday.

And yesterday, at least 200 people jammed into the rear lobby outside the district's payroll offices at school district headquarters on North Broad Street waiting for new checks to be manually delivered.

District officials said they believe that the problem is slower-than-usual Christmas mail service, but that did little to pacify the unpaid, like Sophia Carter, a Grover Washington Middle School teacher.

"It was a mob," Carter said last night of the scene at district headquarters. "It was like mayhem.

"One woman said she'd already received an eviction notice," Carter told the Daily News. She said the woman had said she didn't have money to pay her landlord last Friday as promised.

Carter said it was obvious some people were angry and a few were yelling at first. But there were plenty of security officers trying to keep everyone calm.

In the meantime, as the anxious crowd of frustrated employees waited downstairs, the School Reform Commission was busy with its regular business meeting in the district's second-floor auditorium upstairs.

District employees who have direct deposit weren't affected by the paycheck snafu.

School district officials are pointing the finger at the U.S. Postal Service which, they said, must have been bogged down with Christmas-season deliveries in the past week.

"The post office didn't deliver the checks [on time]," payroll director Michael Niederman said as he stood surrounded by worried employees waiting to learn if their names were on a list to get a new check.

A call to a post office spokeswoman was not returned last night.

Amy Guerin, a district spokeswoman, said that checks had been mailed as usual last Tuesday and Wednesday to workers who don't get direct deposit.

But payroll officials started getting calls last Friday from workers who hadn't received their checks.

The district then sent out an e-mail telling all employees who wanted a new check to call the payroll office and ask the district to issue a stop-payment on the previously mailed checks, Guerin said.

The workers were then told to come to district headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets yesterday to receive a manual check.

Carter and other school employees said the payroll department didn't seem prepared for the sheer numbers that swamped the office yesterday. "They weren't showing empathy for us," Carter said, adding that this contributed to the angry feelings.

Guerin said only about 400 of the 3,900 employees who get their check by mail asked for a new check.

If those employees finally do get their original checks in the next couple of days in the mail, but they've already asked the district to issue a stop-payment, the school district workers won't be able to cash those checks, Guerin said.

Carter, who arrived at 2 p.m., was still waiting five hours later at 7 last night. Some in the crowd said they had been waiting since 11 a.m. and others since 1 p.m.

Although many in the crowd left when told to return today or tomorrow to get their checks, Carter said she was among a group of 50 people still waiting to get at least some of their expected pay last night.

"If it wasn't for the union coming down here, we would have left like some of the others did," Carter said.

Carter praised Philadelphia Federation of Teachers official Arlene Kempin and other union reps who came down to insist that payroll give those still waiting a check last night.

Linda and Robert Casillo, a married couple from the Northeast, said they would come back tomorrow, to see if their checks are ready.

Linda, a teacher at the J.H. Brown school in Holmesburg, and Robert, a school psychologist for both Lincoln High and Baldi Middle School in the Northeast, said they have two children and still have some Christmas shopping to do.

But Robert Casillo said he had never seen a pre-Christmas paycheck disaster like this week's in his 27 years in the district.

"The paper work is already in" to switch to direct deposit, Linda Casillo said. *