TUSD pays worker double severance, sues for refund

2013-09-16T00:00:00Z TUSD pays worker double severance, sues for refundBy Alexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When TUSD career- and technical-education director Kathy Prather quit last year, the district paid her more than $22,000 in unused sick and vacation pay.

A month later, a second check, this one for more than $20,000, arrived.

It wasn’t until a year later someone at Tucson Unified School District sent Prather a notice that the first check was a mistake and she should send it back. She was really entitled only to the $20,000 amount.

Prather has refused, saying she believes she is entitled to both checks, forcing the district to sue to get the taxpayers’ money back.

Prather said she told district officials she would consider giving some of the money back if they would provide an explanation and documentation for their calculations. But the district has thus far refused.

A further kink in refunding the money, she said, is that instead of paying her directly, the district deposited the money in a retirement account, which would require Prather to pay a penalty for a pre-retirement withdrawal — even if she took the money out to give it back.

Prather left the Tucson Unified School District in July 2012 after 13 years. She was to be paid for any unused sick or vacation time, but when she inquired about the amount, TUSD told her it was still being calculated.

Later that month, TUSD deposited a check for more than $22,000  into an account for Prather — exactly how much is unclear because the district’s lawsuit lists different amounts on different pages.

That was followed less than a month later by a second check for $20,079 deposited to the same account.

Not knowing how much she was supposed to receive, and having been paid by split funds in the past, Prather said she had no reason to think anything was amiss until almost a year later, when the district sent a letter requesting repayment for the first check that it said was erroneously deposited.

In fact, last October, when Prather decided to move the money from the institution where TUSD deposited it into another account, she had to have the district’s payroll department sign a form confirming that the entire amount was correct, which was done without hesitation, she said.

“I don’t know if there was a mistake in the first place,” Prather said. “But if there was, they not only made the mistake once, they verified later that the funds could be transferred to my account.”

While Prather believes the full amount is what she should have received, she has told TUSD, through an attorney, that she may be willing to consider a resolution only if it can provide a full accounting of how the calculations were made — a request that the district did not respond to before filing the lawsuit in Superior Court.

“We may be able to work it out if there’s been a mistake, but first prove to us what it was actually supposed to be,” Prather said. “There are real issues here that they’re not providing any information to employees who separate on what should be deposited and that there is no transparency.”

TUSD spokeswoman Cara Rene said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Prather wouldn’t say if she spent any of the funds, but noted that without her consent, TUSD deposited the money into a retirement account for which, because she is not retirement age, she would face tax penalties for early withdrawal for any reason.

In its lawsuit, TUSD claims that Prather was “unjustly enriched” by receiving money that she did not earn.

“There is no justification for the enrichment and impoverishment (of TUSD) other than TUSD’s mistake,” an attorney for the district argued. “(Prather) failed to notify TUSD of the mistake and continued to keep the money until TUSD discovered the mistake.”

The district is asking that Prather return the money, plus interest, and all costs and expenses incurred, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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