Portland school district quiet as payroll problems persist

Dec. 3—The Portland school district's payroll problems persisted on Friday for the fourth pay period in a row, with some ed techs saying they didn't receive the correct pay two days after Superintendent Xavier Botana said that the issues would be corrected.

The Portland Education Association, which represents both teachers and ed techs, said some of its employees also received incorrect pay Friday.

School board Chair Emily Figdor did not directly answer a question Friday about how many ed techs were paid incorrectly. She said that the district's ed techs received their back pay for the year-plus they worked without a contract. They should have received their back pay around six weeks ago, according to their contract.

There could be some confusion because it appears the district was overpaying some of its hourly workers for multiple pay periods and seems to have corrected that in at least some of the payments that went to employees Friday, resulting in lower paychecks than some employees expected.

Botana did not respond to questions Friday. He has told the Press Herald that he will no longer answer its questions, expressing displeasure with its coverage.

This is the fourth pay period in a row in which the Portland Public School District has failed to pay all of its employees correctly.

For at least three pay periods starting in the fall, district ed techs did not receive a 5% pay increase outlined in their contract or the appropriate back pay for the time they worked without a contract. Additionally, over the past month and a half, employees in multiple departments have been paid late and incorrect amounts and have not been awarded correct paid leave.

Botana cited software problems, turnover in the payroll department and lack of payroll staff training as the cause of these issues.

As a result of the district's failure to pay its employees appropriately, some employees say they have struggled to pay bills on time and now are facing late fees and other expenses. It is not clear how many people have been affected by the district's payroll issues and precisely to what extent.

Almost all of the district employees who have spoken to the Press Herald regarding payroll issues said they are not willing to go on record citing fear of retribution from the school district.

One anonymous employee who contacted the Press Herald on Friday said, "Despite emails sent to staff, most of us did not get the correct pay promised today. I'm sorry that I can't go on the record, the fear of retribution is real and valid."

Because the district has not responded to questions from the Press Herald, it is not clear what payroll issues remain.

Figdor admitted, however, that the district is still struggling to pay staff stipends earned for jumping into additional positions or doing additional work. Figdor said the district is committed to resolving those issues in the next payroll on Dec. 16.

Besides Figdor, none of the other school board members — Abusana "Micky" Bondo, Adam Burk, Aura Russell-Bedder, Nyalat Biliew, Sarah Brydon, Benjamin Grant, Sarah Lentz and Yusuf Yusuf — responded to a request for an interview about the issue on Friday.

The Maine Education Association, the state educators union, said it is working with its Portland affiliate to get its members paid and appropriately reimbursed for expenses caused by the district's failure to pay them appropriately. The MEA has not shared precisely how it plans to do that, but it did say that it is working with lawyer Jeffrey Young of Solidarity Maine on the issue and that the union is "keeping all its options on the table at this point." It is not clear what those options include. When asked, the MEA said that it and the Portland Education Association are still negotiating details and could not comment further.

The Portland Education Association in a statement released Friday afternoon said that the MEA and the PEA are trying to resolve the payroll issues with the district and are negotiating an agreement. The union would not elaborate on what kind of agreement they are negotiating.

"At the center of everything the Union is fighting for is ensuring our hardworking educators receive the pay they earned and deserve," the PEA said in a statement. The union said the school district recognizes the payroll issues and that they are working together to decide on a "realistic" date when all staff will be paid correctly and have their accrued leave balances rectified.

"The payroll issue over the last few weeks has been a huge financial burden for our staff, and we are hopeful that as the PEA works with MEA and our attorney that together with (the district) we can come to concrete resolutions that fix the problem now, and in the future," said Kerrie Dowdy, the PEA president.

Figdor said the district is working very hard to fix the payroll issues, that it has contracted to have an external audit of its payroll system to ensure accurate payment for its employees and that it hopes to have its payroll system fully outsourced by March at the latest. The district previously said that process might not be completed until the beginning of next school year. The union said it has been advocating for the district to take these actions.

"I'm devastated by the harm we've caused but laser-focused on both ensuring staff are paid their very hard-earned money and fixing the systemic problems so nothing like this can happen again," Figdor said.