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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Attempts to tackle problems with the Portland Schools’ payroll system have entered a new phase. Portland and Maine Education Association members are now negotiating with Portland Public Schools about specific deadlines to pay employees and call for an independent audit.

The Portland Education Association is now “advocating for a full audit of the current payroll system, and a more timely switch to an outside payroll processor,” said Giovanna Bechard, Director of Communications for the MEA. “The Union believes that these items are necessary in order to restore faith to PPS’ ability to pay employees properly,” Bechard wrote.

An internal message to PEA members from President Kerrie Dowdy Friday night explained that the PEA and MEA have “secured a lawyer” to address PPS’ failures to pay certain employees on time and in the correct amounts. The message noted that PPS stated many times since October that these issues would be fixed, but negotiations didn’t move forward until the MEA and a new lawyer got involved.

Some of the district’s approximately 1,500 employees had not received correct retroactive pay owed to them as a result of signing a new contract in October, largely due to staffing issues in the finance department. The problems have occurred for some hourly staff with “complex payroll situations,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said in November, like those which “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.”

As of Friday, Dec. 2, ed techs had reportedly received retroactive pay as the district promised. Some of the “complex payroll situations,” however, have still not been resolved. The email to the PEA stated that some checks were still incorrect by the end of the day.

Botana wrote to staff on Nov. 30 to inform ed techs they would receive retroactive pay Friday, while other stipends and differentials that remain unpaid or incorrect should be expected by Dec. 16. Botana told the Phoenix last week that he had no further comment about payroll.

In addition to outsourcing payroll processes, the PEA has called for a clear process that allows employees to communicate payroll errors to the district. In previous conversations, the district had said outsourcing payroll could take as long as a year to implement.

Dowdy’s email to PEA members added that the audit should be at the district’s expense.

The School Board held an executive session Friday evening to consult with their attorney. The board was expected to meet on Dec. 6 after the Phoenix went to print. Agenda items included an update on payroll and potential action to approve Alma Advisory Group to conduct the district’s superintendent search.

Tuesday is the first meeting following the inauguration Monday night of new At-Large board members Benjamin Grant and Sarah Lentz, as well as District 3 member Julianne Opperman, who replaced former Vice Chair Adam Burk.

Emily Figdor, who has chaired the Board since 2020, was nominated by straw poll on Nov. 15 to keep the role, but stepped down on Monday. Lentz was elected new chair of the board, and District 1 Board Member Abusana “Micky” Bondo was selected to fill the vice chair position.

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