Portland School Board member Emily Figdor listens at Superintendent Xavier Botana answers one of her questions during a meeting on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Former Portland school board chairwoman Emily Figdor in October refused to discuss the district’s payroll problems with city leaders and rejected its offers of help, according to emails obtained by the Press Herald.

Figdor responded to a request from Mayor Kate Snyder to discuss the finance issues by accusing her of trying to politicize the problems, downplaying their significance and reminding Snyder that the city has no oversight of school department finances.

Since then, the Portland school district has failed to pay its employees on time and in the correct amounts for numerous pay periods. As a result, some employees say they have struggled to pay bills and are saddled with overdraft fees and interest payments. Some are still waiting on pay they should have received weeks ago.

Emails obtained Monday through a Freedom of Access Act request shed new light on the situation, showing that Figdor and school department administrators were aware of their district’s significant payroll challenges in October – including the overpayment of nine employees by a total of $57,336 and the failure to pay all Portland Adult Education hourly employees on Oct. 21.

Emily Figdor, left, and Kate Snyder

In an email sent on Oct. 28, Snyder and City Councilor Mark Dion reached out to Figdor and then school board member Adam Burk saying they had heard that the district was having some issues with payroll and requesting a meeting between the city’s finance committee and the district’s finance committee.

The issues came to the attention of city leaders after the district overpaid a group of its employees and a school department payroll employee asked the city’s finance department for help in recouping the overpayments and for help with other payroll assistance.


In a series of emails between Snyder and Figdor, Figdor declined the city’s request for a meeting and its offers to help, saying it was “inappropriate” for the city to request a joint finance committee meeting and accusing the city officials of trying to influence the outcome of a November referendum vote.

“I am concerned about continued city efforts to politicize PPS (Portland Public Schools)  prior to the election,” she said. “It hurts our trust and ability to work together, to be frank.”

Figdor was referencing a failed referendum question on the November city ballot put forward by the Portland Charter Commission that would have authorized the school board to send its approved budget directly to voters instead of having the budget first go through a review by the City Council. City elected officials, including Snyder, openly opposed the measure.

In the email exchange, Snyder repeatedly tried to assure Figdor that the request to discuss the district’s payroll issues was in no way a political move.

“I’m not proposing that we meet about this before the election,” Snyder said, adding that city finance staff asked Snyder and other elected officials to look into the matter. “Councilor Dion and I don’t want to handle this any differently than we would at any other time. We are conscious of external factors, including the election, and we are not looking to manage this any differently than we would at any other time. We felt that the request for a joint meeting was reasonable.”

Snyder, a former school board member, wrote that the city wanted to help.


“There is concern that (city) finance staff is being asked to step in; I think we all want what’s best for the CoP (city of Portland) and PPS (Portland Public Schools) and want to be able to help if able.”

Figdor did not seem convinced.


“Just to reiterate, it’s inappropriate for you to request a joint finance committee meeting, as you don’t have oversight over our finances,” she said in one email.

“Given your interest in our payroll, and in the interest of transparency, we’ll send you a letter within the next few weeks on the steps we’re taking regarding our payroll,” Figdor said in another.

Emails show Figdor later met with Dion regarding the district’s payroll issues.


“I appreciate the opportunity that we had yesterday to discuss the questions surrounding the payroll issue,” Dion wrote to Figdor on Nov. 3. It is not clear from the emails what precisely was discussed or how the meeting was arranged.

Around the same time, on Nov. 2, the Press Herald reached out to Figdor and the other members of the school board’s finance committee regarding a tip it had received that the district had overpaid a group of employees by a total of $100,000. The emails obtained Tuesday reveal the actual amount was $57,336.

Figdor responded that there was no truth to the tip, which she said was politically motivated, and that the school district had payroll issues but nowhere near approaching that magnitude.

Figdor did not immediately respond to an interview request Tuesday afternoon and was attending a school board meeting Tuesday night.

Snyder said her communications were not politically motivated.

“Working on PPS payroll issues is important to the city because we’re colleagues; there’s a willingness and interest in helping out when there’s a need to the extent possible. We’re one city,” Snyder wrote in an email. “As elected officials or staff of the city of Portland, or PPS, we are all invested in making sure that our institutions are sound, our public employees have a responsive work environment, and that taxpayer revenue is managed prudently.”


The school district’s major payroll problems date to October. Over the course of around four months prior to late October the district lost two of its three payroll staff.


The issues intensified after the district’s third payroll employee went on leave, leaving the district without anyone able to properly run the district’s payroll system. As a result, employees across the system say they are struggling financially. The school district says it is working to solve these issues and plans to outsource its payroll functions.

It is unclear how many employees have been affected and to what extent. Superintendent Xavier Botana did not respond to a request for more information Tuesday. He has said that the school district will not respond to questions from the Press Herald, citing displeasure with its coverage.

The emails between school and city officials were provided by the city of Portland after the Press Herald requested documents under the Freedom of Access Act. The Press Herald also has requested documents from the school district through the Freedom of Access Act. Responses from the school district are pending.

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