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State education leaders question teacher payroll issues in Boston Public Schools

During Tuesday's state education board meeting, board members asked if the state should amend its mandated agreement for Boston Public Schools improvement plan to include payroll issues the district is facing.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

State education leaders could soon review pay problems in Boston Public Schools after multiple educators made a public call for the district to pay out millions of dollars in pay increases owed to thousands of teachers.

The Boston Teachers Union called for an audit of the payroll system last week after the district failed to pay about 9,000 current and former union members more than $16 million in backpay, a story reported in the Globe on Tuesday.

The money is owed for pay increases for the last school year and most of this fall.

“I’m a little confused. We had the mayor and the (Boston teachers) union president come in lockstep three different times to this committee prior, telling us that they have things under control and they have this, and now the teachers aren’t getting paid,” Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said during Tuesday’s state board of education meeting. “I’m not sure where the misconnection was . . . but ultimately the city are the ones who pay the teachers, and I would just ask that they do whatever they can to get these teachers paid in a timely manner.”

The pay increases were part of a three-year contract ratified four months ago by the union, which had worked without a contract for a year. That contract calls for union members to receive at least 9.5 percent in pay increases over three years, beginning retroactively in September 2021. But the district has yet to cut the pay checks and said it still doesn’t know exactly how much every educator is owed.

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Katherine Craven, chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, questioned whether the state could amend its agreement with the district regarding a mandated improvement plan to include payroll issues. The improvement plan came after a state review that found BPS was failing to make enough progress in addressing longstanding problems, including providing services to English learners and students in special education. The agreement, hammered out among Mayor Michelle Wu and state officials, averted a state takeover, so-called receivership, or the state designating the district as “underperforming.”

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Riley said he would need to first talk to the department’s legal team regarding any amendments but would get back to her.

This is the second time in as many months Riley has raised concerns over BPS issues.

In December, Riley criticized BPS over lack of progress in getting buses to run on time, turnover at the central office, and possible delays in meeting deadlines to fix facility problems, among three areas of concern outlined in the district improvement plan. “(It) feels like some of these balls are being dropped,” he said last month.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Riley told board members he planned to discuss in February and March a series of recommendations an outside organization has made to BPS to fix some systemic problems in transportation, special education, and safety.

BTU president Jessica Tang said she does not see the payroll issue needing state intervention, since BPS already has made some progress in recent days.

“We raised the issue because it’s important and it needs to be addressed, and now it’s getting addressed,” she said. “This should not be an excuse for people on the (state) board to find another reason to call for failed receivership oversight. This does not rise to that level, nor do I have any faith that the state would be helpful in this situation because they have not had a track record of helping.”

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Wu said the city is also dealing with “a clunky HR software system” officials are working to improve across all of city government.

“I know how much our teachers have gone through, and how much they deserve to be receiving their due compensation,” Wu said. “We are going to do all that we can to ensure that we’re not in this situation again, and that we are able to upgrade the systems that have needed to be modernized for many years, but have not gotten the attention given pressing emergencies throughout the pandemic.”

Wu said standards city and school leaders hold themselves to are “far higher” than any improvement plan.

Getting dragged back into a conversation about the agreement, she said, would be a distraction to the work city and district leaders are doing to fix the payroll problems.

“Every day there’s something we can do to make it better and make our system our district more responsive and more supported,” Wu said. “But there’s some big systemic issues that we’re tackling as well that will just take a little bit of time.”

Staff writer James Vaznis contributed to this report.


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.