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San Francisco’s unresolved teacher payroll baggage drags into new school year

Former Lincoln High School Spanish teacher Mary Cerasoli holds a sign before attending a SFUSD Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in San Francisco. Educators addressed the board demanding cost of living increases and improvements to the district’s payroll system. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Like public school districts throughout the country, San Francisco Unified has struggled to staff classrooms in time for the new school year with teachers weary from pandemic fallout.

What SFUSD doesn’t have in common with most other districts is a payroll system that has left educators and staff increasingly fed up with being shortchanged and missing benefits for more than seven months with little, if any, end in sight. 

At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, teachers flooded public comment out of frustration for the still-unfolding disaster over missing pay, insurance gaps and delayed retirement contributions. What began as a deluge of 1,000 cases tallied by SFUSD has continued to unfold with new cases for summer school educators and still-outstanding pay from the spring. 

Frank Lara, United Educators of San Fan Francisco vice president, said they are dealing with at least 100 active known issues. Many of them revolve around teachers who retired and received significantly lower final paychecks, in addition to delays and confusion around retirement contributions

Rafael Picazo, president of the local Service Employees International Union chapter, also estimates more than 100 cases among their members and called EMPowerSF—the company hired to manage payroll for SFUSD—“the worst thing that’s come to the district” in his 40 years here. 

Eva Tellez, an SFUSD educator of more than 21 years, has no easy way to tell how much she is owed. But between $797 deducted in error from the spring and two missing paychecks from working in early education over the summer, it’s affecting her financial stability. She recently bought a house in Pittsburgh for her two teenagers and two infant foster children.

“They tell me to consider the students and families,’” Tellez said. “But who’s considering me and my family?”

Madison Williams, a teacher at George Washington High School, has unresolved pay both from teaching in the spring and summer school. Still recovering from a bout of Covid, she said she was paid 16-cents an hour for 36 hours of Covid sick leave as well as some personal time, costing her more than $2,400 in gross income during the latest paycheck.

“I find it really embarrassing that I never know if I’m going to be paid,” Williams said. “I would just like to be paid so I can stop talking to reporters and do my job. It’s just silly, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

The teachers union and its members called for increased staffing at the payroll office, weekly in-person office hours after school and for the district to pay down outstanding money owed, including interest from the last school year. They also called for a 6.5% cost-of-living adjustment in light of the favorable state budget finalized after SFUSD approved its budget.

Lara, who substituted for a summer school classroom on Tuesday due to staff refusing to show up over not being paid, expects there to be more cases at the end of August when new hires receive their first paycheck. 

“We want the new leadership to be successful,” Lara said. “We cannot forget that the system depends on educators. Without educators, you don’t get literacy scores up.”

Washington High School teacher Carolyn Karlovic holds a protest sign during a SFUSD Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in San Francisco. Educators addressed the board demanding cost of living increases and improvements to the district’s payroll system. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Discussion of the payroll issue came during the first regular meeting with SFUSD’s new Superintendent, Matt Wayne, who outlined a 117-day plan with immediate fixes to EMPowerSF listed as a top priority. Within the next two months, SFUSD plans to staff up payroll, human resources and technology positions, launch financial coaching and continue case management. 

“This is an issue that needs to be fixed yesterday,” Wayne said. “I want everyone who was here tonight and everyone listening (to know that) it is something I will continue to be focused on daily so you can be focused daily on our students.”

The district and the union will soon embark on contract negotiations to determine what level of salary increases may be made. 

But it’s unclear just how long teachers can wait for that to come to fruition. 

When one teacher asked during public comment if it would take striking to get everyone paid, several in the audience chanted back an emphatic “yes.” Rhetoric around strikes emerged shortly before the pandemic when the prospect of layoffs first emerged.

Tellez stopped showing up for summer teaching after losing even more pay. She doesn’t plan to show up for work until it’s resolved—and doesn’t know what she’ll do if that still doesn’t happen. 

“That,” Tellez added, “is the scary part.”

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