At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Lowell High was pretty much deserted. Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz

About 80 percent of Lowell High School’s educators, some 120 out of 149, are expected to call in sick today in protest of the San Francisco Unified School District’s ongoing payroll debacle, according to multiple Lowell teachers, including Kathy Melvin, a union building co-representative at the high school. 

Also in protest, an additional 10 percent of Lowell educators are expected to participate in work-to-rule, meaning they aren’t working beyond their contracted hours like teachers often do.

The educators are planning to head to 555 Franklin St. at 11 a.m. for a quiet sit-in, where they will be demanding an audit of the disastrous new payroll system, Melvin said. The action has not been sanctioned by the educators union, United Educators of San Francisco.

More than 3,000 employees of the San Francisco Unified School District have been underpaid, unpaid or mispaid since the district switched to its new EmPowerSF payroll and human resources program at the beginning of 2022. The cost of the system and the millions subsequently spent on a fixer firm is roughly $16 million.

Since then, employees have held protests, the school district hired a consulting firm for up to $2.8 million, educators held an unsanctioned walkout, the educators’ union filed a complaint, and, most recently, the school district launched a 60-person command center to address the issues.

“This action is in frustration that these issues are still unresolved, even though in many cases, we have received messages from the district saying that the issue was resolved,” said Melvin, also an organizer for the action, referring to teachers sending the district help tickets that were marked as resolved, even though their issues persisted. 

It’s a big deal, she added, that the largest school in the district was protesting a week before finals, when teachers are especially busy.

Melvin said that, since the district launched its command center a month ago, she has heard of improvement in people getting paid correctly in their most recent paychecks. But she hasn’t noticed improvement on other fronts.

“We still have unresolved issues with EmpowerSF, meaning we still have people who do not have healthcare; we still have people who are owed thousands of dollars; we still have people who still do not have their retirement benefits,” she said.

Lowell High educators did do some outreach on an informal basis to employees at other schools in the past couple of weeks in an attempt to organize a bigger action today. But, as it’s a week before finals, she said, “it looks like it’s just Lowell.”

On Tuesday, Lowell Principal Mike Jones sent an email to families confirming that the overwhelming majority of teachers and staff would be out in protest, while the rest participate in work to rule.

“This includes neither covering classes for teachers and staff who are out, nor additional pre-scheduled after-school activities,” he stated. “We anticipate that there will not be ample substitute teachers in our classes. Your student’s safety is our priority, and we are developing a coverage plan. While we explore options to ensure adequate supervision for students who are present, participating teachers will post asynchronous work via Google Classroom in an effort to keep students engaged academically.”

In addition to Jones’ message, teachers had also alerted students about the sickout in advance, Melvin said.

The school will close at 2:30 p.m., due to a lack of adult supervision, Jones wrote.

At around 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 minutes after school had started, a group of several students was standing in front of Lowell by the drop-off area, while the school’s front courtyard with the flagpole, normally bustling with dozens of students, had only a handful. 

“There’s basically no teachers here,” said a student waiting to be picked up at 10 a.m. 

Another student remarked on the ghost-town-like situation. 

A few students trickled in to use a posted QR code to request an excused absence.

“School is in session at Lowell High today,” according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

She added, “Student safety is our top priority, and Lowell has developed a plan to ensure there is adequate supervision for all students who are at school today.”

Though Melvin noted that any action comes with a concern of discipline, today’s protest involved taking contractually and legally allowed sick time, and taking it off officially. Sick time, she added, does not have to be approved unless employees take five consecutive days off.

“So, our position is, we are behaving professionally within the constraints of the school district,” she said.

Erin Hanlon-Young, a Lowell teacher, said she was taking the sick day because she has colleagues not getting paid or not getting health insurance.

She referred to understaffing of positions, such as paraeducators, at the school, and added that she’s heard employing paraeducators has been difficult, because the school district has a reputation of not paying its employees.

Hanlon-Young, who teaches U.S. and world history, noted that she’s been teaching her students about unions, and she had explained why she participated in sickout.

“They’re asking me why on Earth I’m still working,” she said of her students.

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David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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  1. Why does the SFUSD even have its own payroll system? Seems like in a logical, non-corrupt and wasteful world (yeah right), the City of SF should have a single payroll system for all employees of all departments.

  2. Where, oh where, are Friends of Lowell standing up for Lowell teachers, are they still mourning Walkers’ loss?

  3. I left the meeting early to start taking care of business prior to orthopedic surgery next week. But when I tried to submit a request for time off and to submit a substitute request, I encountered another Empower snafu — I have no sick leave and no ability to request a substitute. This is confounding. What am I going to do?

  4. Bravo Lowell teachers! Nothing other than a full forensic audit of SFUSD’s books, where *every* employee’s pay for the last year is evaluated for errors, will make us whole.

    1. There needs to be a forensic audit of everything that goes on at 555. I don’t think there is one honest person at central office- bunch of overpaid crooks.

  5. In solidarity with my colleagues today. If the district doesn’t listen we WILL strike and the taxpayers WILL NOT tolerate mistreatment of public employees on their dime to fatten your corrupt pockets with these non bidding contracts and crooked consulting schemes. Follow the money, someone got political advancement and or paid for these deals. We need a through investigation. Thank you Mission Local for the continuous coverage.