On Friday afternoon, as teachers and students were preparing to head off for winter break, the San Francisco Unified School District sent an email to large chunk of employees, warning them that they had been overpaid and that the district is “required by law to recover such payments.”
Few additional details were offered. In the email, which was sent by superintendent Matt Wayne, staff were told that the district would give them more information and “work out a repayment plan with [them]” early next year.
The district scheduled a virtual meeting to explain the issue on Monday, by which time staff were on vacation. And, after the school district sent out what appears to be several hundred emails, it is now unclear how many recipients were actually overpaid after all.
Several teachers told Mission Local that their alleged debt came as a shock.
“I’m inclined to believe they made a mistake,” said Santiago Gonzalez, a teacher who received the email and who has worked at Rooftop K-8 for five years. Gonzalez said that, because of the disastrous rollout of the EMPowerSF payroll system, he has been regularly scouring his pay stubs for mistakes, and was unaware of any errors in his favor.
In fact, Gonzalez said he is still waiting for the school district to pay him $1,000 in wages that he has been owed since February. He said that, despite opening help requests with the district in the spring and the summer, he has yet to be made whole.
Liz Kaufman, a teacher for six years at Phillip and Sala Burton High School, also received the email. Before this week, she had encountered only one minor problem with the EMPower payroll system, when she was charged extra union dues for taking sick days. But this new issue has caused stress right before the winter holidays.
“For me, it was scary because it was so unclear,” said Kaufman. “I don’t understand when or how I was overpaid. Receiving an email without any details is not a nice way to go into the break.”
In a follow-up email sent on Saturday, Wayne apologized for “any stress and confusion” the initial email had caused, and appeared to suggest that not everyone contacted the prior day necessarily owes the school district money.
“You received a communication on December 16 about a potential overpayment during the 2022 calendar year,” reads the Saturday email. It goes on to say that staff were contacted because the EMPowerSF system produced an overpayment report that included their names, and that this report was being audited “to determine to what extent, if any, overpayment occurred.”
“A preliminary audit has revealed that several SFUSD employees received a salary advance or were overpaid in the 2022 calendar year,” said Laura Dudnick, the school district’s spokesperson. She added that they have prioritized fixing the District’s payroll system doing “right by our employees. We apologize for the impact that this issue has had on our staff.”
“At this time, SFUSD is conducting a detailed audit to determine the extent of the issue. In the meantime, we have issued a preliminary notification to employees who may potentially be impacted.”
In every school contacted by Mission Local, multiple staff members were told they had been overpaid. Some overpayments are genuine, but it is unclear how many.
Chris Clauss, a special-education teacher and union rep at Washington High, said some teachers were aware of overpayments and had been telling the school district for months.
“I think some people were aware they were being overpaid and were anticipating something,” said Clauss. “But they were not expecting it right before the holidays.”
Clauss stressed that the timing of the messages — the afternoon that schools were shutting for winter break — meant that there was little time for staff to ask any questions. And, she added, people were angry that the district seems to be prioritizing collecting their overpayments while some staff have not received all their wages.
“At Washington, we’ve already had a teacher quit mid-year because of underpayment,” said Clauss. “Another is planning to see the school year out but then move to another district.”
The school district’s data dashboard for tracking issues with the payroll system says that 4,450 employees are currently experiencing problems, a change of zero percent since last week. The district bought the EMPowerSF system for $13.7 million, and has poured some $8.8 million into fixing the ongoing payroll crisis.
According to multiple school district workers, figuring out if your paycheck is accurate is harder than it might sound.
One issue: Because school teachers typically do not work in July, they face problems accepting a regular paycheck for that month. So, a new system skims money off their other eleven paychecks and adds them together for July to ensure steady cash flow. But this system came online last January, meaning there had not been a full year of payments to put into this July. July’s payment was therefore smaller than might have been expected.
Another issue: Since January, staff have been required to input their own hours, even when they are salaried. This extra complication can lead to problems when mistakes are made or when days off are tabulated.
Extra payments for stipends, which many teachers receive for taking on additional responsibilities, like coaching sports teams, can add an additional complication to the pay stubs. Add to this the various minor errors that have plagued EMPower, and sorting out your expected pay can be deeply complex.
“We are expected to be accountants and tax experts and know how to check these very nuanced payments,” said Cynthia Lasden, a teacher and union rep at McKinley Elementary. Lasden also criticized the timing of the school district’s communications.
“It’s like, ‘Happy vacation; you owe us $10,000,’” she said.
The United Educators of San Francisco union released a statement stating that it was “shocked at the lack of respect shown to our hard-working educators,” and that the “initial and vague communication that only brought about more stress to educators was ill-advised.”
This afternoon, the district hosted an informational Zoom session for staff worried by the recent emails. The meeting was closed to the public, but one teacher who watched along said its message could be summed up as, “We will get back to you in 2023.”
The school district has put a recording of the meeting, minus the questions from teachers, on the SFUSD website. Further informational sessions are scheduled on Zoom for Thursday, Jan. 5 and Friday, Jan. 6 from 3 to 4 p.m.