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What’s ahead for San Francisco public schools in 2023?

The small gymnasium at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school in San Francisco | Michael Macor/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images

Barring further recalls like the one that brought national attention to San Francisco’s school board in February, 2023 should see some stability in school leadership at last.

While the San Francisco Unified School District will soon welcome a new commissioner, it will see several of the same challenges in the coming year that unfolded throughout 2022.

Expect more pandemic ripple effects, constant payroll problems, staffing vacancies, a budget deficit under state watch and putting new student goals into practice, to name a few.

Here are the biggest themes to look for in 2023.

Payroll Problems Persist

Staffers have struggled for a year now to decipher their paychecks as missing pay, benefits, and tax contributions continue to plague more than 4,400 employees. Frustrations compound with each passing day in a situation that SFUSD expects to last at least another six months, when an emergency $8.8 million consultant contract addressing the problems is set to end

“The idea isn’t that every single thing is going to be fixed by May but we’ll be well positioned,” Wayne told The Standard from the payroll command center in December. “We’re using this time to do hiring.”

The ordeal adds to regular stressors of working in education in an expensive city with understaffed schools exacerbated by the pandemic. Educators left in record numbers prior to the 2022-23 school year and despite SFUSD nixing several vacant positions to balance the budget, it struggles to recruit and retain staff. 

If the payroll problem isn’t fixed before teachers commit to the next school year, it could become the final push for some teachers to leave the district.

Instructional aide Alex Schmaus addresses the SFUSD Board of Education on Aug. 9, 2022. | Noah Berger for The Standard

For those who do stay, a pay raise may be on the way. 

United Educators of San Francisco and SFUSD will soon begin bargaining for a new labor contract this spring with wage increases—the first since 2017. In September, the teachers union struck a deal for an immediate 6% raise backdated to the start of the school year. 

And while more money will ease some of the strain from record inflation, teachers say SFUSD has much more work to do to assure its employees they have a long future with the district. That includes smaller class sizes and more support staff, UESF President Cassondra Curiel said.

“We’ve spent a year watching all this turmoil around a paycheck that’s never been enough money for those of us in education,” she told The Standard. “The district is already bleeding professionals. That means we’re losing a wealth of knowledge and dedication for years.”

Manning the Ship

Superintendent Matt Wayne hopes to draw observations from a rocky first semester at SFUSD to inform lasting change.

To that end, he said he expects lessons from the payroll debacle—like how a lack of preparation and staffing set the stage for chaos—to do more than map a way out of the ongoing crisis. Already, those lessons have raised questions about systemic fixes that the district will explore to prevent things from escalating in the future. 

Some answers may come sooner than later. A long-awaited review of SFUSD’s central office to get a better sense of how to restructure it will be released this month. The analysis, ushered in with help from Supervisor Hillary Ronen, will also lead to an organizational chart to clarify the responsibilities of the people who work at SFUSD’s headquarters. 

“There’s a lot of challenges,” Wayne said, “We’ve laid a foundation to start building on them.”

The teachers union embarks on the new year with higher hopes than the one that preceded it. UESF credited Wayne’s leadership for getting the district to respond with more urgency to the payroll crisis and for probing the underlying causes of the dysfunction.

“The changes that are happening will likely be a big culture shift,” Curiel said. “It’s going to change San Francisco education for the next 10 years.” 

The Board of Education has had its own changes: three commissioners removed by voters in February, three added by Mayor London Breed, and one of those appointees ousted by a challenger. With a new board, polarizing politics of recent years may subside.

In the aftermath of the recall, Jenny Lam used her position as board president to enroll herself and colleagues in training to refocus their governance on students.

“In the last nine months we’ve undergone some fundamental shifts,” Lam told The Standard. “That set a really clear roadmap.” 

Students participate during Richard Moore’s science class at John O'Connell High School in the Mission District in San Francisco on Aug. 17, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Some elements of her overhaul invited skepticism, like when it ended committee meetings as SFUSD knows it last fall. The idea was to replace it with ad hoc committees assigned a specific goal, though Lam said commissioners will decide in the coming months how and when those will materialize.

The board and district overhauls will set the stage for a new budget process, which remains under state watch for its structural deficit. Commissioners will hold a public workshop on the spending plan in February, Lam said. The board will also conduct self-evaluations and a superintendent evaluation in the spring.

Meanwhile, SFUSD will continue to reckon with lead found in the soil and water at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School, leading to more broken trust. Staff have conducted a facilities assessment to eventually craft a new master plan serving as the foundation for what could be a $1 billion bond measure in 2024 at the earliest. 

Student goals

In October, both Wayne and the board approved new goals to recover from pandemic-related setbacks that will need to be strategized and worked into the budget. 

Some initiatives are already making headway toward those goals: a potential new literacy curriculum long backed by special education advocates, a promising math pilot, and the expansion of community schools that bring outside a variety of youth resources to campus.

City partnerships strengthened in recent months around this goal of student outcomes. And in November, voters approved Proposition G to shift up to $60 million in property tax revenue to spend on grants for academic achievement at SFUSD schools. 

“For the first time ever, we’re all moving in the same direction,” said Supervisor Ronen, who represents the Mission and whose children attend SFUSD. “I have tons of optimism and hope for the changes we’re going to make together in our public schools in the upcoming years. There’s a bunch of people in the city, me included, who cannot wait to help.” 

A task force is also assessing the district’s portfolio of high schools, including those with selective admissions: Lowell High School and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. 

The post-recall Board of Education in June restored the controversial admissions process at Lowell, which temporarily joined the rest of SFUSD’s comprehensive high schools in admitting students by lottery, starting the 2023-24 school year. It will once again be subject to debate when the task force makes recommendations by April 30 for board approval.

Addressing inequities more broadly in public education will take decades, Wayne said, and remains an ongoing priority for SFUSD.

“I often heard those ideas of equity and excellence talking about how they’re in conflict,” Wayne said. “They’re not competing concepts. They’re actually two sides of the same coin to do right by our students.”