Portland school board member Emily Figdor listens as Superintendent Xavier Botana answers a question during Tuesday’s meeting. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

To quote John Lennon, “I read the news today, oh boy …”

It’s hard to fathom what’s in store for the Portland school district as it struggles with a payroll system meltdown that recently has paid some employees too much, some too little and some, alas, not at all.

At the same time, it’s even more cringeworthy to watch former school board chairwoman Emily Figdor and Superintendent Xavier Botana wallow in what can charitably be called a failure to achieve the most basic of their responsibilities – paying public servants for their service to the public.

Still, as I await the next daily development in this ever-expanding brouhaha, one more thought comes to mind: I’m darn lucky to be reading about it in my local newspaper.

It’s no secret that these are hard times for newspapers. So hard that in hundreds of places across the land, the local chronicles have folded and their communities have, quite literally, gone dark.

Not so here. Led by the dogged reporting of staff reporter Lana Cohen, the Portland Press Herald is proving in real time why aggressive, fact-based reporting is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. With it, public ineptitude is exposed, explained and, hopefully, excised. Without it, sooner or later, we’re all screwed.


What makes the Portland school district fiasco so galling isn’t just the nuts-and-bolts deficiencies in the finance office that caused the wheels to start coming off this fall. Stuff happens – whether it’s a staff shortage in finance or a payroll system that has complicated written all over it.

No, this is about leadership – or, when it comes to Figdor and Botana, an utter lack thereof.

They could step up and explain, in detail, what happened, who’s affected and exactly what they’re doing – right now – to make things right.

Instead, they refuse to answer reporter Cohen’s questions. Why? Because they’re not happy with the not-so-rosy headlines.

They could give voice to the still-unknown number of school employees who, through no fault of their own, find themselves barreling toward the holidays with empty bank accounts.

Instead, they cry foul because the newspaper had the audacity to speak to some of those employees without the school district’s permission. Really? A reporter needs their permission to do her job?


They could at least accept desperately needed help when it’s offered.

Instead, when approached by Mayor Kate Snyder and City Councilor Mark Dion about having the city’s and school district’s finance committees sit down and work through the problem, Figdor fell victim to her own legendary hubris.

“I am concerned about continued city efforts to politicize PPS (Portland Public Schools) prior to the election,” Figdor replied in an email to Snyder, referring to the recent referendum that would have given the school board – not the city council – final say on Portland’s school budget. The ballot question, thank God for small favors, was resoundingly defeated.

Huffed Figdor, who this week stepped down as chair but remains on the board, in the same email to the mayor, “I’ll remind you that you don’t have oversight over PPS finances.”

She’s right. That’s apparently why the district’s finances look like a school cafeteria after a freshmen food fight.

We know all this because a month or so ago some of the real people suffering real hardship from this mess began reaching out to the Press Herald. Then reporter Cohen started asking questions.


Then, when answers to those questions weren’t exactly forthcoming, the newspaper used Maine’s Freedom of Access Act to obtain a raft of emails between city and school officials. Page after revealing page, they portray a City Hall side eager to help and a school district side firing insults from the protective cover of its tightly circled wagons.

Now ask yourself: If a taxpayer-funded payroll system collapses in a city with no local newspaper, does the public at large see or hear about it?

Distressing as the news coming out of the school district may be, I was heartened to see in the voluminous reader comments following each story an appreciation for the work being done here by Cohen and her colleagues.

“Thank you Lana Cohen for doing your job and doing it well,” wrote one. “Please keep the FOAs and the facts coming.”

Echoed another, “Nice work Lana. I’d happily pay a lot more for my online subscription to support more reporting like this.”

And more reporting there undoubtedly will be, from the rollout of a new payroll system to aftershocks – is that the Internal Revenue Service calling? – from the old one.


Among all those emails now visible under the spotlight was one from Brendan O’Connell, the city’s finance director, to Interim City Manager Danielle West. Essentially, it’s a stunning recap of school payroll problems as of Oct. 31.

“I fear these errors are probably just the tip of the iceberg and until the School (district) engages some outside resources for assistance they will continue,” O’Connell warned.

Meaning there’s more to come. And your hometown paper will be watching – and reporting on – every move.

Oh boy …

Bill Nemitz, the Press Herald’s longtime news columnist, retired in May.

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