Solutions to payroll problems for employees of Portland Public Schools could take well into next year, officials say, after several pay periods during which the district failed to pay certain hourly employees in a timely manner.
Ongoing struggles within the district’s finance department came to light after an audit conducted by New Hampshire firm Melanson, which found payroll problems stemming from inadequate staffing.
The district’s response in the audit on Sept. 22 said they’re exploring a solution — outsourcing payroll to a private company — though the timeline for that potential change may extend into late next year.
Payroll for the majority of the district’s approximately 1,500 employees is unaffected. The problems have occurred for some hourly staff with “complex payroll situations,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said. Those “occur mostly when hourly staff are in more than a single position and those positions receive different compensation levels; when people change positions; when they receive stipends or other alternative compensations; and when they use vacation days on unpaid days,” Botana told the district in a Nov. 15 letter.
As of Nov. 18, the payroll problems had affected some ed techs in the district beyond those with “complex payroll situations,” according to the Portland Press Herald. Several had reportedly not received correct retroactive pay owed to them as a result of signing a new contract in October.
In an email sent by Botana to staff on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 17, the superintendent explained that some staff would be receiving their pay at the end of the day Friday — later than normal — due to complications from a network outage.
Shoshana Hoose, an ESL teacher at Portland Adult Education since 2014, published a letter in the Phoenix on Nov. 11 describing payroll issues that have affected “at least 50 hourly teachers,” including herself, which started in October.
Hoose wrote that she was told staffing was the main cause, which officials confirmed at meetings on Nov. 10 and Nov. 15. The district currently has one employee fluent in using the payroll system MUNIS, a product of the Texas-based software firm Tyler Technologies, after two recent departures. That individual is currently on leave, which has left no one in the finance department with the ability to operate payroll as effectively.
“That has left us with staff who do not know the multiple workarounds and exceptions that exist in our system, all of which are poorly documented,” Botana said at the Nov. 15 school board meeting, adding that the district has “redeployed HR staff to work on data entry.”
“Please know that every concern is logged and that we are resolving and communicating with those affected as quickly as we resolve them,” Botana said.
Last spring, the district hired Terry Young as its Director of Operations after a long stint as the principal of Longfellow Elementary School. Young oversees finance, human resources, food services, transportation and facilities, and is “working almost exclusively on payroll-related issues,” Botana said.
According to Young, a district the size of PPS should have as many as four staff members who can run payroll. The district is planning to cross-training staff in other departments to operate payroll to help address the problem.
School officials have discussed outsourcing payroll to a private company as a longer-term solution. If they take that route, it could take well into 2023, Young said. The district received a letter of intent and a proposal from ADP, a management services company that offers payroll oversight.
Botana said that the recent system challenges within payroll have reaffirmed the need to outsource it, saying on Nov. 10 that the district can’t depend “on a system that is patched together” and “relies on one person’s deep understanding and historical knowledge of it.”
It was also noted that outsourcing payroll to ADP wouldn’t completely eliminate the need to use MUNIS in the school district.
Many of the financial problems flagged in the audit from September were also present in the district’s 2020 audit, conducted by Runyon Kersteen Ouellette. That audit found that “material misstatements were not detected and corrected in a timely manner.”
Without employees reporting issues they find with their pay, mistakes can likely go unnoticed by the district.
Staffing woes, one of the most significant reasons behind the payroll issues that started in October, were also a recurring theme in the 2020 audit. “Key turnover in significant accounting positions,” was listed as the cause of four of the five weaknesses identified in the audit.