Portland High School
The main entrance to Portland High School on Cumberland Avenue. Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said replacement of Portland and Deering high schools will remain a priority for the School Department after he leaves his post next July. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The Portland Public School district has now received complaints or queries about the schools’ payroll system from roughly half of its staff. 

The figure expands the number of people who have been potentially impacted by a payroll system that has failed to pay wages to a portion of staff members in the correct amount, on time or at all in some cases. Many of those initially impacted by the payroll issues are educational technicians and others who work on nontraditional, contingent or per diem contracts.

The problem stems from staffing shortages and a payroll software system that has been difficult to operate and launched with errors, school officials have said.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana stands outside the School Department Central Office at 353 Cumberland Ave. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Superintendent Xavier Botana told staff in a Dec. 9 email that the district had heard from as many as 750 staffers, half of the district’s roughly 1500 employees. The figure is a large uptick from the estimated 140 impacted employees reported by the district on Dec. 6. The large number includes staff members who have reached out about timeliness of pay and those who had questions about “pay rates, pay stub visibility and clarity issues,” according to Botana. 

The district asked staff to reach out with ongoing payroll comments and questions last week, according to a Dec. 9 email, and set up a designated email account for employees to lodge complaints and inquiries specific to payroll.

This is the most recent phase in a two-month old struggle over material problems with the school district’s payroll process. An audit, conducted by the New Hampshire-based public accounting firm Melanson, warned the district in May of deficiencies in the payroll system.

School officials have attributed these problems to errors in the district’s payroll system — MUNIS, operated by Texas-based firm Tyler Technologies — and staffing struggles, which has left the finance department without staff sufficiently knowledgeable of the system.

Starting last week, a staff person from MUNIS, our software system, has been embedded with our team and is working to relaunch MUNIS, because it was launched initially with fundamental errors,” former School Board Chair Emily Figdor posted to social media on Dec. 7. Figdor stepped down as School Board Chair last week, ceding the role to Sarah Lentz.

Public comments from the Dec. 6 school board meeting included staff members’ personal experiences and challenges with payroll. Elizabeth Capone-Newton, a parent of a student in the district, wrote in an email to city staff that the district is taking an individual approach to a widespread issue.

“This is symptomatic of how they deal with complaints from staff, students and families — as discrete, individual problems instead of addressing root causes and collective intervention — [it’s] an inability to see a forest through the trees,” Capone-Newton wrote.

The school district signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last week with both the Maine and Portland Education Associations, setting timelines and corrections in place to address payroll issues. The MOU states that an audit of the district’s payroll, by Spinglass LLC, is expected to be completed by the end of January. The district will also find a firm to outsource payroll no more than 30 days after the completion of the Spinglass audit, according to the MOU.

In the Friday email, Botana wrote that he also intends to extend the benefits of the memorandum to the rest of the district’s staff, including the BASE union which consists of custodial, transportation, food service, secretaries and IT, plus staff from Portland Adult Education and those who are unrepresented as well.

Staff members with lingering payroll issues were told that a case manager would be reaching out to them last week to begin solving the problem.

An ed tech who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution told the Phoenix on Monday that they reported incorrect sick pay totals last week but have not yet heard from a case manager.

Friday, Dec. 16 is the payroll date by which PPS agreed to fix payroll issues like stipends, retroactive pay and raises, according to Giovanna Bechard, director of communications for the Maine Education Association. 

The school board is not scheduled to meet again until Jan. 3. The annual “State of the Schools” address is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 19, at the city council meeting.

 

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