January 3, 2023
Dear Portland Public Schools Staff and Community,
On behalf of the Board of Public Education, I am reaching out to you today with more information on the payroll issues and an interim leadership plan for the district until our next superintendent is selected. First, I want to acknowledge that the last few months in the district have been tremendously challenging at every level. After years of COVID-19 pivoting and continued racial unrest both nationally and locally, a payroll crisis and an unexpected leadership transition have exacerbated and increased anger and distrust throughout our school communities.
At tonight’s Board meeting, the Board is expected to approve the appointment of assistant superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend as co-interim superintendents until our next superintendent is identified and in place. Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, who is currently a co-principal at Deering, is expected to take on the role of interim assistant superintendent for the same time period. The team will move fully into leadership on Jan. 13, Superintendent Xavier Botana’s last day in the office.
Assistant Superintendents Nalli and Townsend have demonstrated tremendous leadership during their tenure with the Portland Public Schools. They are deeply embedded in the equity and academic work across the district, respected by their peers at all levels, and extremely well positioned to continue pursuing district priorities. Dr. Ahmed brings crucial skills in restorative justice and community building as well as a commitment to fostering healthy school cultures. Navigating the next six months will be an exercise in collaboration, and there will be significant challenges, but we feel the combination of skills and experience these three leaders embody will support us through this period.
For the remainder of the school year, the Board will be supporting this interim leadership team on the following priorities: Stabilizing payroll operations; beginning to rebuild trust with BIPOC communities and staff in general; and passing the 2023-2024 school budget. Success on these initiatives will pave the way for a new superintendent.
At a meeting of the Board on December 6, I offered an apology for the payroll failures and our initial response — an apology we all reiterate and affirm today. In the ensuing month, Central Office staff members have been diligently working to fix specific and general payroll problems and have made substantial progress. Central Office has been assisting the Board to help members understand the underlying systemic failures that caused the payroll challenges in the first place. This horrible situation must become an opportunity to improve our systems and processes, and every Board member is committed to that.
Identifying the scope of the payroll issues has been a key priority for the Board, and we are still working on that. An outside firm of experts is conducting a forensic audit as we speak, and we hope to have their findings by the end of January. Their analysis will confirm which employees have been paid incorrectly and by how much. It will also ensure that benefits, accruals, and retirement contributions are accurate. We are anxiously awaiting these results, and we promise to share more when they’re available. This information will create a pathway for us to make every employee that has been impacted by our payroll issues whole.
In the meantime, we have set up a fund to reimburse employees for fees incurred by our failure to process payroll promptly and accurately. Employees can access this fund by emailing email@example.com. We have also agreed to pay penalties of $100 per pay period to employees who do not have their issues resolved by certain dates. This agreement stems from a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding with our teacher and ed tech unions, but we are extending the same terms to all employees regardless of union representation.
Correcting individual errors is critical, of course, but addressing underlying flaws in the system is just as important. We have learned that problems range from inadequate structure for reporting hours worked to features within our payroll software that were never configured correctly. These issues will not be easy or quick to resolve, but we are committed to strengthening our internal financial systems in addition to moving our payroll to an external processor this year. We have brought in additional resources, including a payroll software specialist, an IT specialist from the City, an accounting consultant, and additional temporary workers. We also will continue to examine how best to close existing gaps in all our internal systems and processes so we can increase our operational effectiveness.
In listening to our community over the past several months, one theme in particular emerged: We are fractured. There are divisions between neighborhoods, between schools, between ideologies, and between staff. There are so many examples of “us” versus “them” across our community, and while I do not expect us to be in total agreement on every issue, we must show up for one another, listen to one another, and move forward together.
With this in mind, Board members have been attending listening sessions at each school building to hear directly from staff, and we welcome you to join them. This effort builds on the Public Affairs Committee's existing work to provide opportunities for everyone in the community to engage in conversation with the Board. Repairing relationships with the Mayor and City Council finance committee members is another priority for us so we can collaborate more effectively in the future and especially on this next budget. We are also working to communicate more productively with the Portland Press Herald and other media. Our goal there is transparency not only on the recent payroll challenges but around district operations in general.
The Board and Superintendent Botana agreed, and continue to agree, that it is in the best interests of the students of Portland for him to step aside now rather than at the end of June, and we accepted his resignation on December 16. Yes, this is disruptive, but we believe it is the best course of action. For many people, Superintendent Botana's departure calls into question the district’s commitment to the essential equity work that took place under his leadership. The Board unequivocally supports equity work in our district and will continue to endorse it at every level. The work of making our schools more equitable was never the work of one person. It continues to be work that all of us must play a part in advancing.
Additionally, Superintendent Botana’s hastened departure does not negate the fact that he has contributed substantially during his time here. The Board is working with Grace Valenzuela, Executive Director of Communications and Community Partnerships, to plan a series of events in mid-January to make sure we uphold his legacy and celebrate his accomplishments. Superintendent Botana continues to demonstrate his commitment to our students’ success and our district by participating in and supporting this transition fully.
Working together as a community will allow us to emerge stronger and be more successful in pursuing equity and excellence for all of Portland’s students. While we profoundly regret the problems that have occurred, we remain hopeful about the future.
The Board and I welcome your thoughts and ideas. Please join one of the upcoming listening sessions we are in the process of scheduling for staff or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chair, Portland Board of Public Education