The latest Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salary database lists a Providence High math teacher earning more than $69,000. Check the school website and he’s listed, along with a CMS email address.
The teacher, now 71, hasn’t worked since he broke his back at school in 2003. Facing questions about the 10-year absence, CMS officials and the teacher’s lawyer this week said that he hasn’t gotten a CMS paycheck during that time, either.
Instead, he has gotten workers’ compensation payments through a “temporary total disability” classification that can lead to a lifetime of payments. In 2011, the state legislature capped those benefits at 500 weeks, but the change doesn’t apply to people disabled earlier.
CMS lists employees who are on unpaid leave as active at their last assignment, even after they’ve been replaced. Officials said they’re reviewing that practice, which can create the impression that educators are being paid when they’re not working.
They say people on long-term unpaid leave are not holding positions open or being counted in the budget, despite their presence on the salary roster.
“This is not a ‘phantom’ payment situation,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said in an email explaining the Providence case to county commissioner George Dunlap, after Dunlap and other commissioners asked questions. He said Friday that CMS plans to put out a statement explaining the situation.
Until an Observer blog post about the absent teacher raised public debate, CMS had declined to provide any explanation about the individual situation or how the district handles such leaves. The challenge: Salaries are public record, but workers’ compensation cases are confidential.
That means faculty at Providence and other schools can look up their school’s salary roster and see people they know aren’t working, with the salary they’d earn if they return to work. CMS officials said Wednesday that the current roster, with 18,665 employees, includes 203 on unpaid leave. Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block said the district could not immediately determine how many have been gone for a year or more.
“If an employee is on extended unpaid leave, they are not occupying a budgeted position and are not being paid by CMS, therefore, they are not included in the budget,” she said.
Bob Bollinger, the teacher’s lawyer, said the teacher agreed to release confidential information about his situation as long as he wasn’t named in an article. He said the teacher wants to dispel the impression that he’s collecting a $69,000 salary from CMS, when he’s receiving workers’ comp payments of just over $35,000 a year.
Even before the Providence situation came to light, school board Chairwoman Mary McCray said, employees had asked her about staffers on leave. This week she expressed surprise that anyone had been on leave for a decade, and said board members need more information: “One of the things I’ve asked about is how many people do we have out on leave.”
The recently released 2013 salary database for CMS shows the teacher at $69,369, reflecting the 3 percent raises given last summer and placing him among the 10 highest-paid teachers at Providence. The Observer requested an explanation of why this teacher was being paid after 10 years of absence and how many others might be in similar situations.
Block replied that CMS had to honor the confidentiality of personnel records, and that “any payments received by (the teacher) have been and are being made in accordance with North Carolina law.”
The teacher, reached at home, also declined to speak, saying, “The school called and said I shouldn’t make any comments.”
After the Observer blog post raised questions, others began demanding answers – including county commissioners, who control a significant part of the CMS budget. Some people anonymously reported that other schools also have long-absent employees remaining on school websites and the CMS salary list.
Payments for life
Bollinger, who handles the teachers workers’ comp case and specializes in that field, said the teacher wants to “get this cleared up” but doesn’t want to expose his private life to public scrutiny.
Bollinger said the situation started in August 2003, when the teacher, then 61, was knocked down by a hand truck, fell against a curb and fractured vertebrae in his lower back. That left him with nerve damage that makes it difficult to stand for any length of time, Bollinger said: “That’s why he’s not been able to go back and be in a classroom.”
Because the state pays the lion’s share of teacher salaries, workers’ comp cases go through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which contracts with a private insurance company called CorVel, Bollinger said. The teacher fell under a category called temporary total disability, indicating he was unable to work but might be able to return in the future.
At the time, the teacher was earning $59,900 a year, Bollinger said. That put him at the maximum compensation rate of $674 a week, just over $35,000 a year, he said. That has not increased in the intervening decade, Bollinger said, even though the salary listed by CMS has risen.
At the time, the temporary payments could end three ways, Bollinger said: The employee could return to the original job or a comparable one that accommodates any lingering disability. The employee could be cut off for violating the requirements of the workers’ comp law. Or the employee could die.
“Prior to June 24, 2011, they can draw for the rest of their life,” he said.
In 2011, state lawmakers set a 500-week cap on temporary total disability – almost 10 years. That only applies to people injured after the new law took effect.
State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, said the Providence teacher’s case sounded like the kind of situation legislators hoped to halt.
“We had cases of prison guards who had been on temporary total disability for 17 years and the prisons had to pay overtime to cover for them,” Brawley said.
Unpaid leave in CMS
When a CMS employee goes on unpaid leave, “CMS will hold that position as long as we know the person will be returning,” Morrison said in his reply to Dunlap. “How long that position remains open is determined on a case by case basis. The type of position and number of similar positions is a significant factor in determining how long the position will be held open. If we know the employee is not returning, for whatever reason, we will act in the best interests of the district and in accordance with the law and fill that position.”
Morrison and Block both said the Providence job has not been held open.
In addition to disability cases, CMS sometimes grants unpaid leave for special circumstances. In 2007, Tricia Cotham was appointed to fill House Speaker Jim Black’s unexpired term in the N.C. House. She was given unpaid leave from her job as assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High, and she hasn’t returned to CMS since.
The East Meck web site still lists Cotham as an assistant principal, but she is not included in the salary list provided to the Observer.
“The CMS salary roster and school website information reflects both CMS-paid employees as well as CMS employees who are on an approved, unpaid leave of absence since they are still active employees – they simply do not receive a paycheck from CMS,” Morrison told Dunlap.
Block said Human Resources Chief Kelly Gwaltney is reviewing that system to see if it can be improved.
“We are looking at a way of reclassifying employees on unpaid leave so that they no longer show up on department or school rosters,” Block said, “However, they will still show up on the salary roster because they are still employees of the district.”
When Morrison became superintendent last summer, he hired consultants to study the CMS human resources department and the overall effectiveness of CMS administration. Both reports flagged problems in the department. Morrison brought in Gwaltney, a former CMS principal, to replace an HR chief who had been hired from banking. He cited her practical experience in education as a plus for a department in need of change.