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Payroll debacle: 750 school employees told they owe SF Unified

Teacher Madison Williams creates a protest poster in front of San Francisco Unified School District’s payroll office on May 4, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco public schools went from scrambling all year to pay staff full wages and benefits to now clawing some back after paying too much. 

With winter break just in arm’s reach this past Friday, some 750 employees got a letter saying they had to give some of their paycheck back to the San Francisco Unified School District, according to United Educators of San Francisco Vice President Frank Lara.

SFUSD is conducting an audit to determine exactly how many employees are affected who will be given more information in January for a legally required repayment plan, said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. But the fallout was immediate—and couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“This whole weekend I’ve been in shock and crying,” said Elisa Romero, a counselor at George Washington High School. “I don’t know how much more financial stress we can take on in the district. At some point, there’s a breaking point.”

The issue emerged about a month ago when The Standard first reported how SFUSD automatically deducted wages to make up for overpayments, prompting a cease-and-desist letter from UESF. Automatic deductions have since ended, but the overpayments—and potential tax problems—did not. 

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. Noah Berger for The Standard

Romero said she already owed $8,000 in taxes after SFUSD withheld too little taxes the previous year. She was trying to avoid paying another lump-sum when the notice about overpayments gave her reason to worry about another surprise tax bill.

Combined with the cost of visiting her terminally-ill father on the East Coast, the stress keeps adding up. Romero plans to ask an accountant to sort through her paychecks, tax info, and perhaps to find grounds for legal action.

SFUSD apologized for the situation.

“We are committed to prioritizing fixing EMPowerSF, the district’s payroll system, and to do right by our employees,” district spokesperson Laura Dudnick said in a statement. “We apologize for the impact that this issue has had on our staff.”

The district did not tell The Standard how the overpayments would affect next year’s taxes. Superintendent Matt Wayne said in his letter that W-2 forms would include all payments received and any required withholdings, which could “lessen any tax consequences from this situation.”

Like Romero, fellow George Washington High educator Dante Popalisky raised their suspicions that they may have been overpaid earlier this year but was told to take it no further. And though the sum of the issues hasn’t taken a great financial toll on Popalisky, figuring out precisely what went wrong on top of demanding school jobs has. 

“For me the source of stress is having to be my own forensic accountant,” said Popalisky, a math teacher and soccer coach. “That’s just another hassle when that’s not supposed to be our job. There’s been nothing glaring or obvious but they’ve mispaid us in a lot of creative ways.”

An information season on Zoom on Monday did little to answer questions or establish trust that the district’s calculations would be correct, staff said. Additional sessions are planned for early January. 

The payroll crisis continues to impact 4,450 employees as of Dec. 15, according to a public dashboard. SFUSD enlisted extra consultant help through May 2023, at a cost of $8.8 million.