Educators protest the ongoing EMPowerSF payroll debacle in front of Burton Academy High School on Nov. 2, 2020. Photo courtesy of Lauren Stupek.

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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. 

Educators fill the street in front of the school district headquarters on Nov. 2 to protest the ongoing payroll debacle. Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz.

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. 

Janaee A. Cobbs, a special education teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, hunkers down at the SFUSD district offices during the teachers’ three-day sit-in. Photo courtesy of UESF.

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Thanks for keeping this in the news Joe. I was been on parental leave for several months and had to spend hours and hours fighting for my pay instead of concentrating on my parenting. I believe I’m still owed $3000 that was stolen from me in at least three different miscalculations, one of which has affects every single teacher who has taken a sick day. And classified staff and folks in other unions are being affected as well. I’m at a loss why our unions are not collectively organizing like they’ve done before. This is driving out so many educators, it makes me think there is some intention to kill public education here. Or make it easier to close schools in the future because there’s no way we’ll have enough staff.

  2. I am in full support of a full staff and teacher walkout until this is resolved.

    We SF parents are a resourceful bunch — we have to be. We can work together and manage for a few days without our staff and teachers.

    PTAs, SFPL, after school programs, etc, can certainly help organize.

  3. It’s ridiculous that Melissa Dodd, who pushed and helped purchase Empower gets a promotion within the district. SFUSD is under terrible leadership. We need audits and Empower scrapped. Payroll was working just fine before.

    1. I worked for the district over 30 years before empowersf. Never a problem with paychecks. It is a symptom of our ever more corrupt city government.

  4. The answer is you also run old system until new system bugs are worked out. Also you not screw people over for their pay and benefits. I’m honestly shocked there isn’t a huge lawsuit or walkout over this.

  5. Why does everyone think that teachers are the only ones affected by this curse called Empower.. Families are hand cuffed hoping all is well with a paycheck not to mention the undo stress it causes for their spouses or significant others who rely on dual incomes. Were almost a year into this debacle time to cut bait. Also Empowers is affecting the tradesmen and women at Buildings and Grounds who have yet to receive their retro pay the District amended in November of 2021 that’s 40 pay periods cause of simple codes that need to added to the payroll system not to mention they are paid far less than their counterparts across every City-entity by 22%and hav’nt received a raise since 2019 and negotiations are constantly being pushed back

  6. 149 needs to receive $5000?
    I could’ve done the payout in a week with paper and pencil by hand, alone! This ridiculous.

  7. Just learned another teacher friend quit SFUSD over admin and payroll issues. She was young and talented. Exactly what this district needed and now they’ve lost another talented SpEd teacher because they can’t function on the most basic level.

  8. SFUSD (and City College) have been shitshows for decades now.

    SFUSD could have transferred payroll to paper ledgers and manually, with pencil and paper, calculated payroll and cut wet ink paper checks for less than they are spending on EmPower.

    We need a serious roto-rootering of these state operations.

    The problem is that the rampaging right wing in San Francisco is doing the right thing in calling out these problems, only for the wrong reasons, and the on-the-ropes progressives are too timid and weak to join them, too frightened of the monsters they’ve constructed to define their advocacy to find common cause.

    1. SFUSD is a law unto itself. Given its property tax base, the city should have decent public schools, but it is a vortex of maladministration and ancient-to-medieval pedagogy. The city needs to rebuild it from the ground up.

  9. Thank you ML for keeping this issue alive and the sesame street baker is an accurate analogy, but we are not laughing when we get our paychecks.

    To clarify, SFUSD pays all teachers a $5000 annual stipend for being nationally board certified. That’s contractual. It is divided up into our 12 paychecks. There’s an additional stipend that comes from the state for the so-called underperforming schools or hard to staff schools… which you’re talking about that for some has been MIA.

    The other issue I would really like to see raised around all of these missed payments is every time we don’t get paid they’re making money on our money, they’re making the interest on our money so even when we do get paid months later, we should be being getting whatever the retro pay is with interest –compounded daily?

    This is from a school district that pays much of its workforce monthly-, certificated teachers. We get one check a month. That means if they’re late a month we haven’t seen our money for two months and so on rinse and repeat.

    1. What is strange to me is that the leadership at UESF claimed victory and called it a “Win” after they decided not to sleep at the district office anymore. Then come to find out that nothing had really changed. As a parent who wants to support teachers, I’m beginning to believe that UESF is all about theatrics and not really helping their teachers. We are also looking into private schools or moving – we can’t take the drama anymore. It hurts to do that, because we can’t afford either, but our kids are suffering.

  10. “me and five other teachers”
    One hopes that is a misquote. Even I know it should be “I and five other teachers”

    1. Yeah – that stuck out like a sore thumb coming from a claimed ultra-qualified (English?!) educator.
      “five other teachers and myself” – to be polite.

      1. “five other teachers and myself” would be incorrect.

        The rule is simple: break up the sentence into parts, and it still has to make sense. So:
        “I spent …” + “Five other teachers spent” = “Five other teachers and I spent.”

        But even I, a certified grammar pedant (although without any stipends) know that plenty of people relax grammar rules in conversational English. After all, I am sure that neither Carlos nor Jim would say, “It is I” when introducing themselves on the phone.

        1. Yes! – A much better solution:
          “Five other teachers and I spent”.
          The things you learn reading Mission Local.

  11. Joe: EmPower is a nightmare for sure, and it’s ridiculous that the city hasn’t yet been able to fix it. The new board should concentrate on it.

    But I want to put the cost in perspective. We spend $3 million PER DAY on homeless services. So far EmPower has cost the city, in total, less than we spend on homeless services every 8 days.

    I say this because if the city wants to dump EmPower and just start over with different software, it shouldn’t let the sunk cost stop it. Our teachers deserve better and the money we’re spending isn’t that much by Shining City By The Bay standards.

    1. SFUSD is not “the City.” The school district has its own revenue, expenses, budgeting and liabilities. Yes, SFUSD does receive some direct and indirect funding from the City and County of San Francisco, but that does not mean it has unlimited access to the money in SF’s $14 billion annual budget.

    2. Hey, we’re spending $409 million on a suicide deterrence barrier that was estimated to cost $50 million and we’ve had 25 suicides off the structure in the last year alone, despite all the money spent. In addition, we’ve spent nearly an extra billion on a subway tunnel. So, if we’ve thrown away $24 million on a paycheck system, what’s the harm? We’re spending $3 million a day to keep the homeless that way, preserving the status quo, the grift, and the paychecks associated with it. I don’t see where there’s a problem….