Nov. 23—The Portland school department is working to fix payroll problems resulting in staff not being paid on time or getting incorrect amounts, and it might not have a long-term solution in place until next fall, Superintendent Xavier Botana said in an email to district staff on Wednesday.
"I understand that the payroll issues have caused a significant amount of frustration and angst for many of our employees and I want to apologize for that. We are dedicating additional resources to resolve these issues as quickly as possible," Botana wrote.
"To address these issues long term, PPS is working with a vendor to outsource our payroll functions," he wrote. "While this transition will take time to implement, we anticipate having this fully operational by the start of the 2023-24 school year."
Botana said the district is working with a software company to address some of the immediate issues but did not say when they might be solved. He also did not explain why the transition to a payroll processing company is not scheduled for completion until next school year. The district has been working to transition to a processing company since the spring.
Botana did not respond to requests from the Portland Press Herald for an interview about the district's payroll issues.
The email follows multiple consecutive pay periods in which the district failed to correctly pay some of its staff — including all of the district's ed techs. On Oct. 18, the district's ed techs and the Portland Public School Board of Education agreed to a three-year contract including a retroactive 3 percent raise for the 2021-22 school year, the first year of the contract, and a 2 percent raise this school year. The ed techs have yet to receive those raises or their retroactive pay. Botana said the district plans to remedy those issues by winter break, which begins on Dec. 23.
Botana also said the district is continuing to resolve other payroll issues.
"Payroll has created a priority queue for resolving all issues, with a focus on ensuring all employees' primary wages are paid in a timely manner," he said. It is not clear what he means by a "timely manner," but Botana said the district plans to have co-curricular and stipend payments issued appropriately by Dec. 2.
It is unclear how many staff have been impacted, but some have said they've been unable to buy food or pay their rent and are facing credit card interest and bank overdraft fees.
"It's disgusting that we work our butts off to just be put on the back burner like this," said Julie Reali, a second-year ed tech who works in a Lincoln Middle School special education program. Reali, who has been an educator for 20 years, said she doesn't know exactly how much retroactive pay she is slated to receive, but that regardless of the amount it would have helped her out around the holidays. Reali makes $25 per hour.
Botana said the payroll challenges stem from staffing issues that left the district without payroll staff in early October. "A lack of employee training and clear understanding of our payroll processes, a payroll system that was not fully built-out as well as gaps in process documentation have made it difficult for others to step in and support the payroll department."
One of the district's payroll staff went on medical leave in October and other payroll staff left in the summer, according to the email. Botana did not say why the staff left or why they weren't replaced before the start of the school year.
The district is also facing an issue with its paid leave accrual system. Botana did not elaborate but said that when the issue is resolved, staff will retroactively receive their accrued vacation time.
Botana did not say what, if anything, the district is doing to support its staff facing detrimental financial impacts from the payroll issues in the near-term.
In a joint statement last week, the respective presidents for the Portland Education Association and the Portland Education Association for Educational Technicians, Kerrie Dowdy and Jennifer Cooper, and the Maine Education Association responded to the district's payroll issues, asking for increased transparency and announcing that they planned to work with a lawyer to manage any pay discrepancies and expenses shouldered by staff as a result of the district's payroll issues.
"The Maine Education Association will do what is necessary to support our members and ensure they receive all the pay they have earned, in addition to receiving compensation for any fees they may have incurred due to this issue," MEA President Grace Leavitt said.
Neither Dowdy, Cooper nor the MEA could be reached Wednesday to respond to Botana's email.