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Big issues loom as school board resumes in-person public comment, welcomes new members

The SF school board welcomed in-person public comment and three new commissioners on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. | Sarah Wright

For the first time since the introduction of Covid safety protocols in March 2020, the San Francisco Board of Education opened its doors to the public Tuesday evening.

But as significant as the reintroduction of in-person public comment may have been, the pandemic milestone was overshadowed by another first—the debut of three new commissioners appointed by Mayor London Breed in the wake of February’s historic recall election.

A few dozen people trickled in toward the beginning of the hybrid meeting but most commenters addressed the board virtually. In a visceral reminder that the chambers haven’t hosted a live crowd in more than two years, the swinging wooden doors that separate the school board from the public seating area creaked like the front door of a haunted house each time someone passed through. Still, none in attendance seemed spooked. In fact, most seemed generally happy to be there in person.

In-person public comment resumed at the San Francisco Board of Education on Tuesday for the first time since March 2020. | Sarah Wright

Still, the meeting was not without tension, as concerns over the district’s ongoing financial crisis—punctuated by a “demoralizing” payroll snafu, which led a number of educators to occupy district headquarters last week—loomed over the proceedings.

New Board Members, New Leadership 

With Jenny Lam moving into the presidential role to fill the vacancy of the recalled Gabriela López, the board needed a new vice president. Commissioners selected Kevine Boggess, elected in 2020, to fill the role. Ann Hsu, Lisa Weissman-Ward and Lainie Motamedi—appointed by Mayor London Breed earlier this month—take the place of recalled members Lopez, Commissioner Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga.

Lisa Weissman-Ward, left, and Ann Hsu at the SF Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. | Sarah Wright

“I don’t have to tell anyone here tonight that we have critical work in the months ahead,” Lam said. “Tonight, we move forward.”

Or, as Superintendent Vincent Matthews put it, “welcome to your home away from home.”

Budget Looking Better… On Paper, at Least

With SFUSD facing a state takeover, a lot was riding on filing an interim budget report on time. The good news is that SFUSD ultimately met its obligation with a balanced, two-year budget. SFUSD originally faced a $125 million deficit for the upcoming school year.

Until additional state funds were projected, school campuses were slated for $50 million in cuts. Now, it’s $15 million to account for enrollment declines. Another $34 million will be cut from the central office budget. 

It looked a bit shaky for a moment there. The interim report was delayed, with permission from state officials, after the board denied layoff notices for paraeducators last month and threw off the balancing plan adopted in December needed for the report. Staff considered sending a “qualified” recommendation, meaning they report the district may or may not meet its financial obligations. 

A positive interim report may be off to state education officials, but a spirited debate over the budget process continues. More money is expected from state coffers, but won’t be known until Gov. Gavin Newsom updates his mid-May budget proposal, finalized by the Legislature in June. SFUSD also has to finalize its budget by the end of June. 

While board members sought to get those additional funds incorporated into the fall budget and rescind more layoffs, SFUSD Chief Financial Officer Meghan Wallace cautioned against it and said it would be “close to impossible” to put the money into action that quickly. Staff agreed to come back with a report on what revenue could be implemented and what could not. 

“If we decide to do it, we can figure out a way to do it,” Hsu told district staff. “Maybe we can modify the traditional process because we have an unprecedented situation here.”

‘Regarding Payroll Errors

The board also approved a tentative agreement with the United Educators of San Francisco after more than 1,000 SFUSD workers, most of them educators, reported underpayment or missed payments in recent months. The problem has been linked to district’s decision to change over to a new payroll system at the beginning of the year.

Other workers reported erratic tax withholdings, insurance cut offs, not being paid while on maternity leave, and missing payments made to their retirement accounts that has yet to be rectified, some educators still say.

The bureaucratic blunder led to threats of a class-action lawsuit and a three-night sleepover at district headquarters last week, which accomplished its goal of getting upper management to act with urgency. 

SFUSD agreed to pay 15 percent interest on missing pay not corrected within three business days, retroactive to Jan. 3. The district will also reimburse any financial penalties or fees as well as medical bills incurred when insurance was cut off as a result of a payroll error. Insurance will also be reinstated retroactively under the approved agreement. All in all, it could cost the district up to $300,000. 

The district will provide more insight as to what went wrong at the budget committee meeting next month.

Sarah Wright contributed to this story.