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Divisive recall, payroll chaos, pandemic aftershock: The year in SF public schools

Protesters call for school board member Ann Hsu to resign on Aug. 2, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

From a divisive recall to a payroll debacle and setbacks in test scores in the wake of a pandemic, 2022 brought considerable challenges for the city’s public schools.

New leaders took the helm at San Francisco Unified School District as it tried to bring kids up to speed amid prolonged Covid disruptions—an effort made all the more difficult by persistent staffing shortages. 

Meanwhile, Lowell High School’s controversial admissions policy returned, the board vowed to reorient itself around student outcomes, and fears about lead poisoning shook hundreds of families at one K-8 school. 

Here’s a look at some of the biggest issues in SFUSD.

Payroll Disaster 

SFUSD was already dealing with the challenges of returning to in-person learning, record staff vacancies and student absenteeism when it rolled out a new payroll system that would cause problems it has yet to resolve to this day.

It started in January with about 1,000 staffers reporting underpayments, incorrect payment, missing benefits or erroneous tax withholdings. The crisis dragged on for the rest of the year with a union-led sit-in at the district office, several other protests, leadership changes, staff driven to their wits’ end and millions of dollars spent on trying to fix the debacle. 

By mid-December, the payroll problems had extended to 4,450 employees, according to a public dashboard tracking the issue. And though SFUSD enlisted help from a consultant to clear the backlog as part of an emergency plan laid out by Superintendent Matt Wayne, it appears the district is still months away from solving the crisis. 

Wayne and the board are still trying to figure out what to do about a poorly outlined $16.5 million contract with vendor Infosys and the lack of proper planning and staffing that got SFUSD into this mess. 

Former teacher Mary Cerasoli holds a sign before attending a SFUSD Board of Education meeting on Aug. 9, 2022. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Leadership Shakeup

SFUSD’s first major leadership shake-up this year came in February with the historic recall of three school board members: Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga. 

Mayor London Breed replaced them with Ann Hsu, Lisa Weissman-Ward and Lainie Motamedi, shifting the board makeup overnight. 

Board President Jenny Lam then enlisted board colleagues for governance training and said she’d make student outcomes the central focus of their work. The board also hired a new superintendent, Matt Wayne, who left his post in Hayward Unified to take the helm at SFUSD in July as other top leaders departed

After hosting a series of town halls, the new superintendent and new board unveiled goals to reshape reading and math curriculum and redraw the road map for college and career readiness.  

Making divisive politics a thing of the past proved easier said than done, however. The new board members plus Lam voted to reinstate selective admissions at Lowell High, reigniting the same debate that fueled the recall and eschewing the superintendent’s advice to keep the lottery system until a task force came up with a long-term solution. 

The Rise and Fall of Ann Hsu 

Hsu emerged as one of the leading proponents of SFUSD’s nationally watched recall before landing on the board through mayoral appointment—and into the hot seat herself. 

It took off with a candidate questionnaire in which Hsu attributed academic challenges for Black and Brown students to “lack of parental encouragement” and “unstable family environments” that set off calls for her resignation. Though she immediately apologized and pledged to learn from the misstep, community groups said she never followed through on her promised listening tour—and her campaign never recovered.

Despite raising the most money in the race, Hsu lost her seat to special education advocate Alida Fisher, marking yet another shift in the board’s balance of power. In a post-election interview, Hsu told The Standard she has no regrets about her brief, tumultuous political trajectory.

Ann Hsu (pictured in red) at a candidate forum hosted by A.P. Giannini Middle School on Oct. 6, 2022 | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Lead Discovery

Buena Vista Horace Mann, a bilingual community school in the Mission, endured horrid building conditions for several years. In 2021 alone, that brought crumbling ceilings, rats in classrooms, a student shocked by an electrical outlet, and a gas leak. 

SFUSD finally acquiesced to demands for a full-scale renovation, which led to testing this year that found high levels of lead and arsenic in the school’s garden soil. Parents and staff at the K-8 school then demanded the district test the water, which showed high levels of lead in at least three faucets

Those findings led to the closure of a beloved garden—and it may be months before it’s safe again.

Student Outcomes

So how have students fared throughout all this tumult? 

Well, the pandemic impacts continued to resonate even after students returned to campus, manifesting in a surge of chronic absenteeism and setbacks in test scores.

SFUSD tried to adapt, including by expanding community schools, launching a successful math pilot and setting out to change its reading curriculum

San Francisco voters also passed Proposition G, which shifts up to $60 million in property tax revenue to the city’s public schools. At the state level, meanwhile, California voters passed Proposition 28, guaranteeing almost $1 billion for arts education in public K-12 schools.

But the state’s keeping an eye on SFUSD because of declining enrollment, which is tied to school funding and could make it harder to balance the budget down the line.