More than 50 Portland school district employees packed a school board meeting Tuesday night to voice their concerns about the payroll problems that have plagued the district since October, with many saying they have lost their trust and faith in the district.

Portland school officials said they are working to rectify the payroll issues, but that the underlying causes that led to some employees being paid late, inaccurately or not at all for multiple pay periods remain unresolved.

The district is working with a software company to set up its payroll system “the way it should have been set up in the first place” in order to solve the payroll issues long term, Superintendent Xavier Botana told the board Tuesday night. He is hoping that task will be completed within five weeks. Ultimately, the district is hoping to have its entire payroll outsourced by spring, Botana said.

Although the total number of employees who have been affected remains unknown, 140 Portland Public School District employees have communicated outstanding payroll issues to the district, Botana said.

In a recent instance, lunch aides were not paid on Friday, when they should have been, Botana said. He believes they were all paid Monday.

Maya Lena, a substitute teacher who spoke Tuesday, said she has been working at Rowe Elementary School since October but has not been paid at all. She said she has reached out to multiple people, including Botana, to try and rectify the situation. Another employee said the district owes them over a thousand dollars and Portland Education Association President Kerrie Dowdy said union members have reached out to her needing immediate financial assistance to pay rent or buy food for their children due to not being paid appropriately.


The district has taken money from its general fund to set up a fund to support employees who were not paid accurately and are subsequently facing late, overdraft and interest fees, Botana said. The district put a “certain amount” of money in the fund and will replenish it as necessary. Botana said it’s too soon to tell if any programs will lose funding because of the shift, but he’s hopeful that won’t be an issue because the district is very understaffed and is paying fewer employees than accounted for in budgeting. The fund is being administered by a Drummond Woodsum attorney working for the district.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana answers a question from school board member Abusana Bondo during a meeting Tuesday night attended by more than 50 district employees, some who gave public comment about the district’s ongoing payroll problems. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In addition to trying to quickly get its underlying payroll issues solved, the district is having its payroll system audited, something the district’s employee unions advocated for. Botana said he hopes the audit will be done by the end of December.


Dowdy, the union president, was the first member of the audience to speak Tuesday night. She was followed by the district’s ed tech union president, Jen Cooper, and then a stream of mostly district educators.

“Payroll is the most elemental promise made to an employee by an employer,” Dowdy said. “It is the district’s job to ensure their employees get paid on time as promised.” 

Cooper said the district’s failure to pay its employees on time and correctly has led to hardship for the district’s ed techs.


“A lack of pay at any time of year is really difficult, but at this time of year it can be overwhelming,” she said, later referencing rising costs of goods and services and the holidays.

Following their union leaders, at least a dozen employees stood up to voice their displeasure with the school board, questioned why the district, with its $133 million budget, has failed to get payroll done accurately for multiple pay periods and consistently accused the district of gaslighting its employees.

They also called for the district to listen to its employees and demanded a resolution and accountability regarding the payroll issue.

“We are where we are because of the continued disregard of experienced employees,” said Michelle Lawless, an ed tech and former ed tech union president.

One employee asked that Botana and board member Emily Figdor, who was board chair until Monday, step down immediately. Other employees implied the same.

“I implore them both to do the right thing for their community and resign,” teacher Ileen Daponte said of Botana and Figdor.


Others talked about increased stress and frustration caused by the payroll issues that educators are bringing to work and worried about how this might be impacting students.

“You are not prioritizing your staff and by extension our students are hurting,” elementary school teacher Jean Rank said.

It wasn’t only educators who showed up Tuesday. Partners of educators and parents of district students also came to express their support for educators.

“I have a 7-year-old in Portland public schools and I think it’s really important for parents to show their solidarity with school teachers and staff, especially the lower-paid ones,” Alison Mann said during a break in the board meeting. “These are the people working so hard for our kids, our community and our future.”

When the public comment period ended Sarah Lentz, who took over for Figdor as board chair Monday, apologized on behalf of the district and pledged to do better.

“We failed you, multiple times,” she said. “In our payroll, in our communication, in our response, and I’m incredibly sorry.”

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