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Former alternative education teachers seek lost pay

This story originally appeared in The Aurora Beacon-News on Sept. 3, 2014.

By: Kalyn Belsha

AURORA — When Reed Harris looks out his back door he can see his former workplace, the Quad County Urban League, on North Farnsworth Avenue.

For two and a half years, Harris worked as a teacher’s aide in East Aurora School District’s alternative education program, which until this school year was run by the Urban League.

Harris says his close proximity meant he often did duties far beyond the scope of his contract, such as opening up the building, working security, doing maintenance and intervening when students became violent.

“There wasn’t nothing I wouldn’t do for that company,” Harris said.

So when Harris went to pick up his paycheck from the Urban League on July 18, like other alternative education staffers, he was shocked to find it would be his last — and that he would not be paid the last two checks he expected.

He was not the only one. About 15 people who staffed the alternative education program did not receive their last two checks. It cost some staffers between $1,900 and $3,600 each, after tax withholdings.

“I feel hurt more than anything,” Harris said. “I just feel they shouldn’t be doing this to me. I put a lot of work in there.”

Contract details

Last year, East Aurora paid the Urban League $1.5 million to run programs for students who’d fallen behind academically, had behavior issues, were dealing with the juvenile justice system or were new or expecting parents.

In December, the district notified the Urban League of its intention not to renew its contract at the end of the school year. Later, the district hired its own staff to run the alternative education programs and signed a lease with the Urban League to rent its facilities.

Urban League staff say they were informed in December that they’d have to find new work at the end of the school year, but they were not informed until mid-July that their salaries would be cut back.

Leontyne Lee, a teacher’s aide, said when she heard the program was ending, she immediately sent an email to the Urban League’s payroll department to make sure staff would be paid through August. Lee said she was assured multiple times throughout the school year that her contract would be paid in full.

According to the Urban League’s July letter to alternative education staff, the organization said the end of the East Aurora contract “caused significant financial challenges for the Urban League.”

Because the Urban League wouldn’t receive payments to cover alternative education costs after June, the letter said, the organization could no longer afford to “absorb” the staff’s salaries.

According to the Urban League’s employment contract, alternative education staffers were to be paid their salaries over a full year, unless they were terminated before June 6. In that case, staff only would be paid through their last day of work, the contract said. Staff could be terminated at any time, with or without cause.

The Urban League terminated all alternative education staffers June 5, the last day of school for East Aurora, and one day before the contract clause kicked in — resulting in the staff’s unexpected payment reductions.

The issue isn’t something East Aurora has to fix. Under the district’s contract, the Urban League was fully responsible for paying wages to its employees.

Can’t afford to pay

East Aurora School District and the Urban League both say the nonprofit received full payment for its $1.5 million alternative education contract — half upfront last summer and half doled out during the school year.

Former Urban League staffers are questioning why the nonprofit couldn’t afford to cover their full salaries if the contract — which set aside just under $1.2 million for personnel costs — was paid in full.

Several former employees have filed or are in the process of filing unpaid wages claims with the state’s labor department.

“You didn’t even have the decency to tell us ‘Financially we’re strapped but we intend to pay you in partial,’” said VasChenia Lee, a former special education teacher who said she spent much of her own money buying food, supplies and sanitary items for East Aurora students over the year. “Now it’s farewell, here’s a swift kick.”

In an interview, Theodia Gillespie, the president and CEO of the Urban League, described the non-payments as “an unfortunate situation.” She made her decision to protect the nonprofit’s assets and to make sure the nonprofit could meet its “obligations to the community” with its remaining programs, she said.

“When you’re going through changes in funding you have to make decisions,” she said. “The employees knew the program was ending. We talked about downsizing.”

Gillespie said the Urban League didn’t have the “safety net” to pay staff salaries when a program ended and a major funding source dried up. Budgeting in advance is “not that easy” and not as “seamless, like most people think it is,” Gillespie said.

She said the money East Aurora paid the nonprofit was not a “one-to-one match from incomes to expenses” for the Urban League.

Several former staffers said after they received the letter about their paychecks that they made multiple phone calls to the Urban League to set up a meeting with Gillespie. Those calls went unanswered, they say.

Gillespie says she hasn’t received any calls from former staff members about the missing paychecks.

She has approved unemployment claims, Gillespie said, and is willing to give references. The Urban League paid staff through mid-July, instead of cutting off salaries in early June, to help employees stay on their feet, she said.

Hardship without checks

Emanuel King, a former teacher who worked with alternative education high school students said losing his two paychecks “totally messed my life up.”

Losing about $2,400 prompted him to take out payday loans and to pawn some of his personal items.

He now owes his bank $1,500, he said, after he used that money to pay bills. He couldn’t make rent for August, he said, and ended up staying at friends’ houses and in his car. His girlfriend and her two children had to move back to Minneapolis after they could no longer afford their apartment.

“That can never be undone,” he said.

King said he filed a small claims case against the Urban League for failure to pay his wages and resulting damages. He can’t afford a lawyer, he said, but he hopes a judge will look kindly on his case.

He got a new job with Chicago Public Schools teaching fifth and sixth grade, but he has to find a way to make ends meet until his first check arrives in mid-September.

“You just don’t do people like this,” he said. “It’s not fair.”