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Petersburg payroll error cost school division $140,000: 'That is a significant amount of money'

Posted at 5:09 PM, May 28, 2024

PETERSBURG, Va. — Former Petersburg Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling cited a policy that did not exist when she decided school employees would not have to pay back the school system following a payroll processing error. That error cost the division $140,000, according to records CBS 6 obtained through a public records request.

All employees of Petersburg City Public Schools received an unexpected memo in January 2024 from the then Assistant Superintendent of Finance Jeffrey Ryder.

In the memo, Ryder said a payroll process error led to deductions not being taken out of employee paychecks.

Employees who normally had money removed for things like health insurance or retirement got an unexpected bonus in that check.

“In being thoughtful and considerate of our employees our error should not create unnecessary burdens on our employees and their families," Ryder wrote. "Therefore, Dr. Sterling, following policy, has authorized the finance department to hold all employees harmless for this payroll increase in your January 15th paycheck."

In other words, the employees did not have to pay back the money. The school system instead covered the deductions.

CBS 6 has confirmed through a public records request that the error cost the school division $140,000.

“That is a significant amount of money,” Senator Lashrecse Aird (D-13), who represents Petersburg in the General Assembly, said.

An email from School Board Chairman Kenneth Pritchett to Ryder indicated the board had no idea how much money the error was going to cost the division, according to another public records request submitted by CBS 6.

In the email, which was sent over a month-and-a-half after the memo, Pritchett told Ryder that the board asked Sterling to provide them with “how much money we lost,” and then asked Ryder to provide the number.

Petersburg parent David Muller said someone should be held accountable.

That’s $140,000 they had to find in their budget to make up for that error. It seems to me, maybe we need a new school board, somebody that is responsible,” Muller said.

When CBS 6 requested the policy Sterling used to approve holding all employees harmless for the payroll error, a FOIA officer responded that “the requested records do not exist.”

Senator Aird said it’s her understanding the school division is now having an internal audit conducted as a result of this issue and others.

Other issues include the more than $22,000 in travel expenses CBS 6 uncovered the former Superintendent spent during her 15-month tenure.

Watch: Extra hotel rooms, rental cars, and a $22,000 travel bill. What's going on with school leader spending?

Extra hotel rooms, rental cars, and a $22,000 travel bill. What's going on with school leader spending?

“I have to hope we have a plan moving forward to rectify all these things that seem to have gone wrong during this administration,” Sen. Aird said.

CBS 6 asked the Virginia Department of Education about the payroll issue because Petersburg City Public Schools has a Memorandum of Understanding with the state.

The agreement is in effect until all Petersburg schools are fully accredited, according to the school division’s website.

Todd Reid, the Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Communications for VDOE, said in part:

“It is expected that all employees will be paid accurately and that payroll policies will be consistent with local and state practices.

It is good business practice to make sure that deductions are handled properly. If practices are inaccurate or not compliant, there may be issues with the use of federal funds for federally charged employees. VDOE continues to support Petersburg City Schools in implementing solid business practices within the school division.”

We attempted to contact Pritchett and Ryder, but we have not received a response.

CBS 6 reached out to Sterling by phone and email prior to our initial story airing about her travel expenses, but never heard back. But, since that story published, she sent Hipolit an email saying that she will be responding to our report.

We will update our reporting with what she says.

It was announced in early March that Sterling had been placed on administrative leave from her role as Petersburg Superintendent. A reason for that action was never provided.

Later that month the Petersburg School Board announced Sterling's resignation effective April 30, 2024.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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