Bottom Lines

For the past seven years, Veronica Bass has worked as a teacher's assistant in the Houston Independent School District. Besides helping out in the classroom of her middle school, she's been a head softball coach and a volleyball coach, and she helps out coaching Special Olympics students. She's also the mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 15.

So she has a busy life. And like most people with busy lives, sometimes she doesn't nail down all the details.

In her case, this has resulted in a not-inconsiderable gotcha. She wasn't looking at her paycheck stub; didn't do it for years. When she finally got around to checking it out in 2009, she discovered that she'd been paying out not just one but two deductions in union dues in a lot of paychecks in 2008 and 2009. One deduction was at a teacher's (higher) rate and the other at her own lower clerical/teacher's assistant level.

On other checks, she'd only had one deduction, but it was coded for a teacher. In bits and pieces, dollars and cents, she'd been overpaying for union representation for quite a while.

So she went to the Houston Federation of Teachers for help, and what followed, as HFT itself confirms now, wasn't optimum. She kept getting assurances that things would be fixed — that she would be reimbursed for the overpayments — and nothing happened.

She eventually took her problems to the payroll department in HISD and the incorrect withdrawals were finally stopped by HISD as of her November 11, 2009 paycheck. But that did nothing about the previous overpayments.

An HFT secretary, hewing closely to the official line, initially offered Bass a $53 reimbursement. Bass thought she was probably owed a whole lot more than that and asked that the matter be investigated further. She requested printouts and records, and in the end — HFT discovered she'd paid at the wrong rate way back in 2004 as well — she now figures that she's owed more than $1,000.

In January 2010, HFT chief of staff Helen Wheatley offered Bass $150 as a settlement agreement for her overpayment, with the additional stipulation that Bass would receive one free year of dues in 2010-11. Bass did not accept.

HFT does not agree with Bass's $1,000 request. Initially, HFT President Gayle Fallon agreed with the smaller payout, but then union rep Joanna Pasternak investigated and found that perhaps another rep hadn't pushed Bass's case forward appropriately in 2009. Fallon decided they'd cover more than the one year that their bylaws call for. But there was no way they were going back to 2004, Fallon said.

By the end of her correspondence with Bass, Fallon had lost all her good humor — after Bass accused her of "fraud" — and, writing from her BlackBerry, Fallon said: "Any further correspondence will be handled by our attorney."

In the latest offer, made in October, HFT put a last-ditch $512.20 on the table. Pasternak says Bass accepted this offer verbally, but later changed her mind and wouldn't sign the paperwork. Bass says she never said she'd sign off on that amount.

As a wonderful side note to all this, HISD and HFT seem to be at odds over how to resolve a wrong-paycheck issue involving union dues. HISD spokesman Jason Spencer says anyone who has a problem with union dues should go to HFT to get it resolved. HFT says no, the individual should go directly to HISD payroll — they'll be glad to help, but really, payroll deductions are between the employer and the employee.

"She was apparently double-deducted. I told her we'll refund her a year," Fallon says. "She doesn't seem to understand that some of this was actually her responsibility. I don't get to see your paycheck, you do," Fallon says. "No one's trying to cheat her."

Bass remains unconvinced. She wants to know why HFT or even HISD isn't at all responsible for looking at the numbers they generate. She says she's not the only one who's paid too much in union dues. HFT reps agree there have been others, but say it hasn't been many over the years.

Bass wants to know why HFT isn't doing right by her (as she sees it) — even though as a union steward on her campus, she's been one of HFT's biggest supporters.

In an October 13, 2011 letter to Bass, Pasternak says the whole mistake initially occurred because Bass filled out "two enrollment forms." According to Pasternak, this happened in 2004 and 2005 and again in 2008 and 2009.

Bass says no, that's not exactly it. The first time around, she was brand-new to the district and when someone said she should join the union, she thought it sounded like a good idea, filled out the form handed her and turned it in. For those years, she says, she was charged at the higher teacher's rate, not double-charged.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing