Former Fort Worth schools employee says she was fired for reporting payroll problems

FORT WORTH -- In a whistle-blower lawsuit, a former Fort Worth school district employee claims that she was fired because she alerted officials about problems with a new payroll system.

The lawsuit also alleges that Superintendent Melody Johnson and other administrators were told in fall 2008 that the system was not ready to go live because data had not been properly converted. The district's switch to the new system early last year was marred by a series of errors, most notably resulting in at least $1.5 million in overpayments to employees and former employees.

District spokeswoman Barbara Griffith said officials could not comment on the lawsuit because they had not been served and had not seen the allegations.

By knowing the system's faults, administrators committed fraud by moving forward with the switch, Aracely Chavez alleges in her suit. Chavez was an analyst in the district's enterprise and planning resources department. She said she told administrators, trustees and an internal auditor before and after the system went live that the district was wasting and mismanaging public funds, a violation of district policy and state law.

"I reported waste and management of school district funds that violated the law," Chavez said. "Because I reported this, the school district took me out of a job, so I am seeking justice."

The department was dissolved last summer. Chavez's attorney, Jason Smith, said officials had indicated to Chavez that she would be moved to another department but terminated her when they learned that she had reported the payroll issues.

Johnson has said in previous discussions about the payroll conversion that the department's functions were absorbed into other departments -- including technology and business -- to improve the payroll process . The payroll system had to be switched because the district's old software was no longer being supported by its manufacturer, officials have said.

The new system went live January 2009. From the start, the district had problems, including overpayments, underpayments and no payments. About $1.3 million in overpayments have been recovered, and the district has filed suits seeking repayment from some ex-employees.

An internal audit released last month found no evidence of fraud or malfeasance but did note that the district lacked proper procedures and training that led to human errors in the payroll conversion. The audit found that some employee groups were paid at a daily rate for each hour of work instead of the hourly rate; that some former employees received paychecks though they had not been with the district for nearly two years; and that some employees were simply not paid.

On Tuesday, trustees voted to seek requests for proposals to determine how much external audits would cost -- one to look at previous payrolls and one to look at payroll procedures.

Chavez's lawsuit is filed with the 162nd District Court in Dallas County. The Texas Whistleblower Act allows a government employee to file such a lawsuit in any county of an established council of governments where he or she lives, such as the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which includes Tarrant and Dallas counties.

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700