For successive pay periods now, a number of employees of the Portland Public School District have been underpaid or not paid on time. The district has laid the blame on, among other factors, a shortage of staff and a recent internet outage. 

The trouble is, a failure like this cannot be justified. 

Staffing shortages are as widespread as they are acute right now. Technical difficulties tend not to be insurmountable. Households, meanwhile, are feeling the vise grip of inflation, dreading the holiday season and the steep cost of staying warm this winter. If you’re a worker living paycheck to paycheck, a missing paycheck is a grave matter.

While we don’t know much, we know that educational technicians have been affected across the board. 

This cohort of workers is the very one the school district hasn’t been able to attract or retain (so crippling is the shortage that the district at one point contemplated cutting the school week to four days for some special education students). A Portland educator called the pay for ed techs “meager” at a school board meeting in September – and that’s if the pay is paid in the first place.

“We will leave no stone unturned to ensure that we get every staff paid what they should be paid, and certainly that staff are paid on time,” Emily Figdor, chair of the school board, told WMTW on Nov. 18. “That to me is my highest priority in the coming days and weeks.” 

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It’s the highest priority, period. And it’s a baseline expectation of any workplace. As assurances go, a guaranteed paycheck amounts to the bare minimum. Any other business in this position, no matter its size, would be at pains to remedy such a fiasco overnight.

We’re not seeing anything like that sense of urgency from Portland Public Schools. After weeks of discontent and doubt, Superintendent Xavier Botana issued an apology by email just last week. 

The email undertook to “help employees understand the current payroll situation,” but offered no clarity on the number of staff affected. It offered nothing on the nature or scope of the discrepancies, referring only to “a focus on ensuring all employees’ primary wages are paid in a timely manner.” A timely manner? It’s already too late.

Remember that Botana campaigned for budget autonomy for the Board of Public Education in the latest election. As a number of our readers have pointed out, the incompetence and the lack of transparency on show in this instance would seem to validate Portland voters’ decision to say no to that proposal.

We’ll add that this editorial is coming late; this “payroll situation” – snafu – has been going on for weeks, starting before the election. There are still more questions than there are answers. The reason for that is that the school district in Portland is extremely effective at controlling the message. 

Review our recent reporting and you’ll be struck by the people speaking only on the condition of anonymity. “An apology just isn’t enough for people who weren’t paid and couldn’t pay their bills,” one Deering educator, citing fear of retribution from the school district, told the Press Herald.

The people tasked with educating and supporting our children aren’t getting paid and they’re afraid to say they’re not getting paid. 

The week before last, Botana said he would no longer respond to questions asked by this newspaper’s education reporter. 

So we return again to his apology email, which tells us the transition to outside payroll processing may not be completed until next fall. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.


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