The Portland school district will accurately pay its ed techs on Friday after six weeks of not paying what was promised, Superintendent Xavier Botana said in an email sent to staff Wednesday.

Xavier Botana, superintendent of schools in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer, file

For the last three pay periods, ed techs did not receive a 5% pay increase outlined in their contract and the district failed to pay them the appropriate back pay for the hours they worked without a contract. Botana said those issues will be remedied in paychecks issued Friday.

But the issue with ed tech pay is just one in a series of recent payroll problems in the city’s school district, and the district continues to work on broader fixes.

Over the past few pay periods, employees in multiple departments have been paid late and received incorrect amounts and the district has failed to award its employees appropriate accrued paid leave. Botana said these issues have been caused by software problems, turnover in the payroll department and lack of payroll staff training.

As a result, some employees say they have struggled to pay bills on time and are facing late fees and other expenses. It is not clear how many people have been affected by the district’s payroll issues and precisely to what extent.

Botana did not respond to questions on Thursday. The superintendent has told the Press Herald that he will no longer answer its questions, expressing displeasure with its coverage.

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In paying its employees incorrectly, the district violated at least one employee contract as well as state law.

According to their contract, ed techs should have received their new wages and back pay immediately after the contract was signed. The district employs about 200 ed techs.

“This agreement shall govern the rights of the parties effective as of its execution date,” the contract reads. The contract also states that “wage increases for the 2021-2022 school year shall be paid retroactively to September 1, 2021, to all eligible bargaining unit members employed as of execution date of the agreement.” The contract was signed on Oct. 18 and the following pay day was Oct. 21.

Under Maine law, employers are required to pay employees regularly and in full at the rate which both parties agreed to. If not paid appropriately, an employee, employees or the Department of Labor can sue an employer. In addition to being liable for unpaid wages, employers can be subject to fines, attorney’s fees, interest and damages equal to twice the amount of unpaid wages.

Citing confidentiality issues, the Department of Labor would not say whether it is considering action against the school district or whether the department has received any complaints about the district’s pay issues.

According to Botana’s message on Wednesday and previous communications between Botana and district employees, some pay discrepancies have been rectified and the district is working to correct those that have not been. Additionally, the district said it is working to have payroll completely outsourced by the start of next school year. But even if it pays all its employees correctly, the district still could be subject to legal action based on its breach of contract.

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The Maine Education Association in November said it planned to work with an attorney to help its Portland Education Association members deal with pay discrepancies and fees incurred as a result of payroll issues. A lawyer who spoke with the Press Herald on Thursday said he was representing the Maine Education Association on Portland payroll matters, although the Press Herald has not confirmed this. Neither the MEA, PEA nor Portland ed tech union leadership responded to a request for updated information this week.

DISTRICT ESTABLISHES REIMBURSEMENT FUND

In addition to correcting paychecks for its ed techs, the district has established a reimbursement fund for those who incurred expenses as a result of being paid late by the district, Botana wrote. It is not clear how much money is in the fund or where that money is coming from.

Botana directed employees claiming incidental expenses to email [email protected] and said that all claims would be reviewed by a claims administrator who will accept or reject the claim or ask for additional information. Any claim rejected by the claims administrator would then be reviewed by district representatives before the rejection was finalized.

Botana said claims regarding other payroll issues including incorrect payment amounts, unpaid wages and inaccurate charges for benefits should be sent directly to him. It was not clear Thursday whether the claims administrator is an employee of the district or if there is to be any outside oversight of these processes.

Note: This story was updated Friday, Dec. 2, to correct the timeline of communication between the Press Herald and the Maine Education Association.

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