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Delegate gets two paychecks at once

House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta collects two taxpayer-funded paychecks when he attends legislative sessions, payroll records show.

Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, draws his legislative salary when he's in Charleston for regular and special sessions.

At the same time, he also continues to collect pay as a grant-writing administrator for Hampshire County schools, even though he's not at the board office in Romney or working on Hampshire school-related business.

No other West Virginia school employee/legislator collects two paychecks at the same time, according to school officials in 14 counties surveyed by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

State law doesn't authorize the double-payment practice. But neither does the law expressly prohibit it.

Mezzatesta gets about $60,000 a year as a grant writer, and another $24,000 in legislative pay every year.

"He attacks people all the time, and here he is double-dipping," said Linda Martin, director of a school-reform group called Challenge West Virginia. "It's dishonest. He should be ashamed of himself."

Mezzatesta defended his two salaries, saying nonpublic employees, such as lawyers, routinely do the same.

He said state school-personnel law allows him to collect two public salaries at the same time - a statement that three West Virginia school lawyers disputed.

"You need to read the law," Mezzatesta said two weeks ago, after the Gazette-Mail requested his payroll records under the Freedom of Information Act.

He declined to answer additional questions last week.

"I'm not going to get into a rebuttal," he said. "You all have the ink."

The law Mezzatesta referred to requires schools to provide "released time" to school employees who serve in the Legislature.

The West Virginia Department of Education and county school officials consider "released time" unpaid time off.

Fourteen school employees in West Virginia take unpaid leave while serving in the Legislature.

The released-time law allows school employees to serve in the Legislature without jeopardizing "contractual rights or any other rights, privileges, benefits or accrual of experience." It says nothing about wages.

"We understand they don't get paid for [legislative time]," but they continue to accrue seniority," said Kanawha County schools attorney Jim Withrow.

Mezzatesta takes paid "professional leave" when he attends legislative sessions.

State law defines professional leave as "educational conventions, conferences or other professional meetings of teachers."

Since July, Mezzatesta has taken 65 professional-leave days - about one of every three days he was scheduled to work in Hampshire County. He took off the same percentage of days last year, citing professional leave.

Mezzatesta's professional-leave pay from Hampshire County amounts to about $15,500 over the past eight months, and more than $15,800 last year.

Mezzatesta's contract requires him to work 252 days a year.

Hampshire schools Superintendent David Friend signed off on Mezzatesta's professional leave.

"Whether it would be Jerry or a classroom teacher, they'd be treated the same way here," said Friend, who cited the same released-time law as Mezzatesta. "State code clearly says we can't do anything to alter someone's contract when they're serving in the Legislature."

Friend said Mezzatesta represents Hampshire County at meetings across the state and nation.

"We're talking about a guy who puts in untold hours," Friend said. "He probably averages 16 hours a day."

Mezzatesta usually gave "educational meetings" as his reason for requesting permission to go to Charleston. On other "out-of-county travel" request forms, he gave no reason.

Hampshire County school regulations require employees who take professional leave to provide documentation that they attended a conference or training seminar, and that it was related to their job. Mezzatesta provided no such documentation.

State law authorizes school employees to take off and still be paid only for jury duty or when they get called for military service for the first 30 days.

School employees may use vacation days and personal-leave days when working in the Legislature.

"I never even thought about taking two salaries," said Delegate Sharon Spencer, D-Kanawha, an 18-year legislator who also teaches at Clendenin Elementary School. "You take a leave without pay, go down there, then go back to the classroom."

State schools Superintendent David Stewart hasn't been asked to determine whether school employee/legislators may collect checks for both jobs at the same time.

In a 1991 memo to school superintendents across the state, former Superintendent Hank Marockie wrote, "There is no statutory authorization to permit the payment of legislators without the necessity of their taking personal leave days."

Most school employees get three personal days a year.

"You have to take an unpaid leave of absence," said state Sen. Anita Skeens Caldwell, D-Mercer. "You're removed from the payroll. I assumed that's state policy."

In January, Department of Education officials distributed a letter to county school finance chiefs, saying school employees who serve as legislators could be paid for noninstructional days, such as "holidays, snow days and out-of-school environment days" when schools are closed.

Mezzatesta gets 20 days of paid vacation a year, but he doesn't use any vacation days while he attends legislative sessions. He took two weeks of vacation in July, when the Legislature wasn't in session.

After the Gazette-Mail started asking questions last week, Mezzatesta alleged that Hampshire County schools finance department employee Gary Kidwell tipped off the newspaper. The next day, Kidwell learned that his job would be eliminated, effective July 1.

Kidwell never spoke to the Gazette-Mail.

Also last week, Mezzatesta and other House Education Committee members were sharply criticized after they included a provision in an education bill that would create a pension windfall for school employee/legislators.

The bill allows school employees to add their legislative salaries to their regular pay when calculating pensions. The provision would increase retirement pay by up to $9,000 for some legislators.

Mezzatesta stands to collect even more since he continues to get his school administrator's salary on legislative time.

"He's out of control," Martin said. "Somebody needs to rein him in."


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