The Baltimore County school system said it has mistakenly paid its 900 bus drivers and attendants for four holidays and four professional development days this school year - a $664,000 clerical error.
Now, the school system is trying to get the money back, docking the paychecks of the employees.
But the employees have filed a grievance and lawsuit arguing that they should receive the pay under their contract and they have staged protests, including a demonstration yesterday at a bus lot in Towson.
School Board President Donald L. Arnold said he told Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to make sure the mistake is not repeated, so the system doesn't set a costly precedent of paying employees for unworked days.
"There are a lot of things that this opens up, and we have to look at it cautiously," Arnold said. "It's not so much people were overpaid, but what are the future issues."
At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement about the terms of a contract between the bus drivers and the school system.
Charles A. Herndon, a school system spokesman, said the contract calls for the bus drivers to be paid for 198 days of work. He said the district is "adjusting the pay schedule" to make sure they're not paid for any more days.
But Lora Williams, president of the employees' union, said there's no limit on the days paid. Other bus drivers argue that the school system is simply reneging on the contract to save money in lean financial times.
"They come along when they want to change things because of the budget situation, and we get the brunt of it because we're the low men on the totem pole," said Georgena Ewing, who said she was docked $300 in pay last week.
The sides also disagree about whether the school system followed the appropriate procedures before docking pay checks.
The bus drivers make between $10.70 and $16 an hour, and they are paid for 40-hour workweeks.
This school year, they were paid for four days of winter break last December, in addition to professional development days in October and February. School officials noticed the payments late last month and docked last Friday's paychecks.
School officials limited their comments, acknowledging the district made a mistake but refusing to provide specifics because a grievance was filed.
Williams, a bus driver of 12 years who heads Local 434 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the school system told the union that the error cost it $83,000 a day.