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Typical turnover or cause for concern? School district and teachers union interpret attrition rates differently

An empty classroom at James Denman Middle School on Feb. 2, 2022. | Sophie Bearman

In an atypical press release issued Monday, the San Francisco Unified School District shared that in the past four months, more than 100 teachers have stated their intention to retire or resign this summer.

According to the announcement, that rate of attrition is consistent with past and national trends. But for months now, union leadership has warned these resignations portend a crisis. To United Educators of San Francisco Vice President Frank Lara, the district’s comparison belies the overwhelming circumstances that local educators and administrators have been grappling with lately.

“One can’t argue against the numbers,” Lara said. “But what we’re hearing on the ground is not like anything before.”

Between January and April of this year, the district said it received 124 notices of planned resignation or retirement; that’s exactly the same as the number seen over the same period in 2021. In 2020, that number was higher, as 217 teachers said they were leaving their posts in SFUSD.

While 2019 numbers during the same period were not specified, SFUSD said its attrition rate has held steady at 9-10% each year for the past decade. National rates on turnover in education are not available, but Chalkbeat reported states like Maryland held the same rate between 2011 to 2020 while Washington’s attrition rate ticked up from 9.2% in a typical year to 10% in 2021.  

SFUSD was hit with a number of high-profile administrative resignations this month. The principals of Lowell High School and Everett Middle School announced they’d be leaving at the end of the school year. Top brass from other city high schools—including Mission, Ruth Asawa and Wallenberg—are also calling it quits.

“SFUSD has numerous efforts in place to support and retain educators, including paid professional development, one-on-one coaching, cash bonuses, and more,” Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews, who has been planning to retire for more than a year now, said in a statement. “We are working to retain and recruit a strong professional workforce prepared to serve our children.”

It’s unclear how many more educators and staff will decide to leave the district between now and August. However, SFUSD is currently looking at laying off 143 employees as part of its $125 million budget-balancing plan under state watch. 

Due to the budget constraints and credentialing needs, SFUSD is in a position of laying off teachers and having staffing shortages in other areas. Educators have reported burnout and low morale exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly in San Francisco under the high cost of living and budget uncertainty.

“It’s been a difficult year.” Lara said. “There are ways to make educators feel like there is hope but they have to lead with clarity and transparency and actually center educators.” 

United Educators of San Francisco estimated about 60 educators resigned during the fall semester. In December, Matthews said that three to seven people resigned each week and warned morale needed boosting.

However, the district switched to a new payroll system in January, resulting in a litany of errors around incorrect pay, benefits, taxes, and retirement that is still being resolved. Lara said it was the last straw for several educators who decided to leave the district. 

Under an agreement with UESF to retain staff, the district will give teachers and paraeducators two one-time bonuses of $2,000—one in June and one November—using windfall funds. A different agreement made after a three-night takeover of SFUSD headquarters promised that staff would receive interest on late payments and any extra fees resulting from late paychecks would be repaid. 

But thanks to one of many payroll errors, Lara said those retention bonuses may just tide teachers over. Deferred Net Pay was meant to ensure a July paycheck for teachers on summer break by reducing pay in the other 11 months. Instead, it occurred on a six-month cycle and many teachers may not be aware they must save for a reduced paycheck in the summer.

Lara agrees that it’s a national and state issue, reflecting failures across the board. Last week, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond announced a task force to contend with declining public school enrollment in California. 

Beyond the bonuses, the district is awaiting construction on a 135-unit building of affordable housing for educators as a means for retention, though other sites identified have been stalled. It also has a pathway to teaching program to train teachers likely to remain in the district.

“We know that the key to student success in any classroom is a consistent, highly-skilled and -qualified teacher,” SFUSD Human Resources Chief Kristin Bijur said. “We are doing active recruitment, both within SFUSD and outside of SFUSD, so that we are prepared to start 2022-23 fully staffed.”