It took Daniel Wagner three years to become a National Board Certified Teacher. This is a grueling process undertaken by particularly adept — and, perhaps, masochistic — teachers involving a battery of tests, multiple presentations and lengthy essays. It can require thousands of dollars and scores of hours. Not quite 3 percent of United States teachers make the cut.
“On the last week before we had to send it off, me and five other teachers spent our entire spring break at school, every day from, like, 8 to 5, finishing it up, packing it. It was hellish,” recalls the English and ESL teacher, who has spent the last 21 years at Mission High.
“A couple of my colleagues did not pass. I passed by, like, one point.”
Now, Wagner and 148 other National Board Certified Teachers are hoping it won’t take the San Francisco Unified School District three years to get them the $5,000 bonus the state sent the district months ago.
It’s hard to come up with the right disaster analogy when discussing the district’s ongoing inability to get its teachers their proper pay on time, make the correct deductions and send those deductions to the right places — all the things most of us assume our colleagues in payroll do as a matter of course. Personally, I’m partial to the baker falling down the stairs, repeatedly, in the old “Sesame Street” bit teaching kids to count by tallying the number of ruined cakes or pastries.
You could depend on that baker taking the fall. You could set your watch by it.
In January, 2022, the district rolled out a new payroll system called EmPowerSF. This was a $13.7 million program and it failed out of the box, in every manner imaginable. Teachers being unpaid or underpaid got the headlines, but EmPower had far more range than that. As we wrote before, EmPower’s shenanigans have been so haphazard, so random, and so broad, it feels as if the district’s mainframe was scrambled after being struck by lightning.
The district has hired a firm to fix the system and make district employees whole, an endeavor that could run up to $8.8 million on the present contract. So, yes, if you’re scoring at home, that’s $22.5 million invested in a payroll system in Year One, a system that is more labor-intensive and onerous for the workforce … and still doesn’t work.
Wagner has eluded the EmPower pitfalls of the sort that led to one teacher being horrified to see the system erroneously deduct $29,000 from her monthly check, or another forced to spend his last days fighting to be re-enrolled on his insurance as he battled a terminal disease, truly a nightmare more horrifying than anything in the movies. But now Wagner’s luck may have run out.
The district, to its credit, encourages and helps teachers like Wagner become National Board certified. The state values it as well: The California Department of Education pays every certified teacher working at a high-priority school a bonus of $5,000. That money is sent to the state’s many school districts to be disseminated to the teachers.
As in: The district has to get the money to its teachers. You can see where this is going.
The state confirmed to Mission Local that it transferred the district $745,000 in October. That’s the better part of two months ago, but the 149 teachers haven’t yet received a cent.
The district assured Mission Local that the teachers would see that money on their paycheck this week. But, as of late last week, it wasn’t showing up in their online time sheets. And the present payroll period closed on Dec. 16.
Will the 149 teachers be paid before year’s end? Let’s hope: Failure to do so would create an artificial $5,000 tax burden in 2023. That would rankle: Wagner told us he’d like to use this bonus to offset the artificial tax burden he was hit with in 2022, thanks to EmPower’s clunky rollout.
But, more to the point, the best-case scenario, by far, is that the district gets its high-performing teachers the state money for which it is only serving as a pass-through at the very last moment. To do so would require, somehow, shoe-horning the money into the system after the pay period closed.
And this Blues Brothers-like race to beat the clock comes months after the money was transferred from the state. Teachers wondering about their delinquent payment were told this month that the payroll department “created the new codes necessary to enable these funds to be distributed on our paychecks.” But everyone involved here knew this money was coming months, if not years, before it arrived. Why weren’t those codes created months, if not years, ago?
So, that’s the issue here. Even in the event that the teachers do get their money — and we’ll find out this week — it required scads of concerned emails and phone calls and high-pressure deadline maneuvers and subjecting teachers to no small amount of stress and anxiety after a highly stressful and anxious year. All of that, again, to get the money teachers were long due, and for which the district was only serving as a pass-through.
“They’re hoarding money that’s not even theirs,” grumbles Wagner. “Come on, man!”
For San Francisco teachers, counterintuitively, receiving a monthly paycheck has become a highly unpleasant thing.
“I have extreme anxiety,” replied Lauren Stupek when asked what happens when she opens up her pay envelope. The National Board Certified teacher of English, literature and drama at Burton High “used to get really excited before payday! Now, I usually don’t open it for a few days. I have to be at home, and in an okay place. I know there’s gonna be something wrong. And there has been.”
You could depend on it. You could set your watch by it.
City voters this year, by a gaudy margin, opted to recall three members of the Board of Education. Those officials did not cover themselves in glory; their embarrassing behavior earned the San Francisco Board of Education, of all entities, national news coverage.
Those school board members punched their own ticket, so to speak. To borrow the line from “Chicago,” they had it coming. But it was clear then, and only more so now, that many voters did not realize how circumscribed a role the elected Board of Education plays. The district’s problems run deep, and shuffling off a few $500-a-month commissioners will not begin to solve them.
In much the same way that every other half-bright, megalomaniacal, closet fascist VC-type on Twitter is getting a free pass right now because of Elon Musk’s incandescent performance, the Board of Education’s performative, even creative incompetence took the heat off the district’s actual paid leadership.
And you can’t recall them.
“EmPower is a symptom. The cause is hubris. It almost always is,” sums up veteran Burton High School French and economics teacher David Knight. “The district, in its wisdom, doesn’t really know how its own organization operates.”
EmPower cost millions of dollars, but it imploded when asked to account for routine tasks that teachers do. Teachers may not have gotten paid, but they got the message.
San Francisco schools are understaffed; in my neighborhood school, a guidance counselor is teaching junior high-level math. San Francisco public school salaries are not particularly competitive; teachers, especially the talented and certified ones, could travel one or two cities over and get a decent raise.
They also wouldn’t suffer heart palpitations every time they open their pay envelopes. Or be forced into a second career of forensic accounting.
“It’s very difficult these days,” says Knight. “Teachers are dropping out. And, if somebody says, ‘Hey, should I come work for the district?’ The answer is, ‘Hell no.’”
There will be a reckoning for all this. You can depend on it. You can set your watch by it.