CLANTON, Ala. (WIAT) — On Tuesday morning outside the Chilton County Courthouse, Frances Allison watched from the sidelines.
A crowd of lawyers and local media had gathered in front of the brick building, assembled for a brief press conference where attorneys would repeat arguments they’d already made in court. No cameras or cell phones had been allowed inside, so this was their moment.
But the lawyers there didn’t represent Frances Allison. She hadn’t asked for them to. Even so, what they said weighed heavy on her heart. She nodded as one lawyer spoke into microphones splattered with network logos.
“Yes,” she urged him on. “That’s right.”
As she spoke, Allison had a letter in her purse. It was her reason for being here in Clanton – the reason she was rooting for a legal team that didn’t know her name.
She’d gotten the letter after being approached in the stockroom of her workplace, Thorsby High School, where she’d worked in the lunchroom for more than two decades.
“They paid you too much,” Allison remembers the school system employee telling her.
The letter, signed by the school system’s superintendent, Jason Griffin, said that Allison had been overpaid nearly $4,000 by the district. The money must be repaid, the letter – and the employee – said.
Frances Allison couldn’t believe it.
For a quarter century, “Miss Allison,” as the kids called her, had served Chilton County without fail. She’d worked at a sewing factory before her move to the school system, where she got a foot in the door by substitute teaching.
“I loved the job,” Allison said Tuesday morning, watching from a few yards away as reporters set up their cameras for the photo opportunity. “I loved working with children.”
It’s hard to convey in a few words or stories the years of love and care that went into her work, Allison said, but one principle guided her throughout her time in the lunchroom.
“I was always kind to the kids,” she said. “And it was a joyful experience.”
But now, the institution she loved had confronted her with an impossible situation.
The school system employee in the stockroom told Allison that she needed to agree to a payment plan or the letter would be formally served to her home.
“I didn’t want the police to bring anything to my job or house,” Allison said. So she agreed: she’d pay the money back.
And she did. Allison signed paperwork – faced with no real choice, she said – to allow the school system to garnish her pay to reimburse them the money they’d allegedly paid her in error.
The loss in wages caused by the garnishment made things difficult for Allison. She struggled to pay bills. She had to ask to work for the school’s summer feeding program to help make ends meet.
Eventually, Allison found out she wasn’t alone. Other employees had received similar demand letters. Unlike Allison, they hadn’t paid.
Christie Payne, a lunchroom manager at Verbena High School, was told she owes $23,465.40, dating back to the 2016-2017 school year.
Shellie Smith, the wife of school board member Chris Smith and a system employee of 19 years, was asked to repay over $33,000 the superintendent said she was overcompensated as a result of repeated payroll errors.
But Payne and Smith, instead of agreeing to repayment, filed a lawsuit against the superintendent, claiming that his attempt to recoup the money amounts to an “illegal act.”
It was a move Allison hadn’t felt she was empowered to make. But she’s glad Payne and Smith did. She doesn’t know what their fight means for her exactly, but she’s pulling for them.
And on Tuesday in Clanton, Payne and Smith faced down the first potential hurdle in their legal marathon when Judge Sibley Reynolds rejected Superintendent Jason Griffin’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit.
“Superintendent Jason Griffin is not the king,” a lawyer for Payne and Smith said outside the courthouse after the judge issued his ruling. “He is not the king of Chilton County, and he’s not the king of the State of Alabama.”
As the lawyer declared victory under a beaming sun, Allison watched on. She was glad for this first step toward some form of justice, she said, but she’s unsure the win would ever lead to an outcome that would make her whole.
Still, she believes the school system should return the money that was garnished from her paychecks to correct the school system’s mistake. It’s the right thing to do, she said.
Allison, who retired in June, said she wants the superintendent to understand that his actions have made life unnecessarily difficult for many hardworking employees.
“It is not right, what’s been done,” Allison said. “It was not our fault.”
As the crowd thinned outside the courthouse in Clanton, Frances Allison picked her purse up from the ground and prepared to head home. She took the demand letter, folded it up and began placing it back in her purse.
A man from Payne and Smith’s legal team walked up to her.
“Can I see that?” the suited man asked her.
“Sure,” Miss Allison responded, hope hanging thick in her voice. “You sure can.”