Seventh grade social studies teacher Hector Pineda says he had to take money out of savings to pay his rent after the district shortchanged his paychecks. (Terra Gauthier)
When Hector Pineda arrived for an all-staff meeting last Monday at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood, he found colleagues on their phones, frantically checking their bank accounts. Word was spreading fast that there was something wrong with their paychecks.
Pineda, a seventh grade social studies teacher in the sixth year of his career, quickly discovered he was missing a large chunk of money. “I moved money from savings into my checking account to cover my rent,” Pineda said. “Fortunately I had that and a supportive partner, or I would have been in trouble.”
The district owes another teacher, Kyle Prince, $4,500. Prince teaches ethnic studies at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School, also in the Portola, and was still getting paid for that work. But he also depends on income from teaching at the district’s online school and night school.
Just as he was about to pay for his wedding, Prince found he was being shortchanged. “Graciously, I have family to support me, so I turned to them. And my fiancée, we had a little bit in savings,” Prince said. He has so far recovered just $1,200 of the $4,500 he has calculated he is missing, months after he reported the errors.
“I love my job and I love teaching, but it's been really tough working the extra hours and, all of a sudden, not knowing how your paycheck is supposed to be,” Prince said. “And no one has been able to tell me anything concrete. It seems like they're building a boat as it's afloat. I've gotten conflicting information from even the higher-ups, you know, from the principals and the coordinators.”
As many as 1,500 educators in the San Francisco school district may not be receiving their full paychecks or haven’t been paid at all in the last month, according to United Educators of San Francisco, the teachers union, which represents some 6,500 educators in the district.
The problem stems from the district switching to a new accounting system, but may also speak to deeper troubles in its finance department.
The turmoil comes as the district and school board leadership are under intense scrutiny for their inability to successfully manage finances.
Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for the district, issued a statement saying the district apologizes, takes full responsibility and is trying to fix the issue, blaming problems on the transition from an antiquated payroll system to EMPowerSF, the new system that cost the district $9.5 million to install.
“This is inexcusable and should not have happened,” Dudnick said.
The district says the vast majority of its 10,000 employees have been properly paid through the new system, even as a growing number of teachers are reporting irregularities on their monthly paychecks — issues that first emerged two months ago.
The district has since moved 10 administrative staff from other duties to support payroll, a district spokesperson said in a statement, adding that staff are “working to figure out any error patterns caused by the new process or system configuration so that corrections are made for subsequent pay periods.”
Like Prince, most of the educators affected are those who have additional jobs outside their main teaching positions — including those working extra hours as paraeducators, substitute teachers or Saturday school instructors.
Some teachers, including those on leave, also have reported issues with benefits and withholdings.
Elisa Romero, a counselor with the district, got a call from her accountant last week. “My accountant was shocked. He told me I owed $8,000 between federal and state [taxes]. I usually owe about $2,000 every year.”
When Romero told the district it had under-withheld her taxes in 2021, she said the district told her to go and change her withholding for the current year. But that won’t fix this year's problem.
“I will be wiping out a lot of savings to pay this and it feels like a punch in the stomach. I owe a lot of money because the district screwed up,” she said. “It's a bitter pill to swallow. It's very hard to come up with $8,000 by April 18, and I am considering selling my mutual funds to cover it. It just really brought me to tears.”
Beyond the initial cost of installing the new payroll system, the school board last year approved two more payments for transition costs, totaling an additional $4.2 million.
“They said the additional money was needed for more transitional time and prep,” said school board commissioner Matt Alexander, noting his frustration. “They wanted all that money to make for a smooth rollout, but all the stuff that they were trying to prevent is happening. It is anything but smooth.”
More than a hundred educators had to take time off teaching and parent-teacher conferences last week to attend a district pop-up clinic to try to fix their paychecks.
So far, the district has made out 861 new checks to educators, according to the teachers union.
The district says it has set up a support-ticketing system to help accurately track and follow up on every issue of nonpayment or underpayment.
Linh Gee, an English teacher at Burton High, said she filed several tickets since realizing the district underpaid her roughly $4,500 — and was told a payroll specialist would assist.
“That's the third time that I've submitted the ticket, and so far no one has reached out to me,” said Gee, who also teaches online and night classes.
“I mean, this year has been really rough to begin with already. So to do your job to help kids who are not your regular day-to-day, do this and then to not get paid,” Gee said. “I have been very patient, but it's infuriating. Like you're not respecting the work that we're doing,”
Gee said she got an email from the district Friday morning telling her to check her bank account, and found it had deposited just $130 of the $4,500 she's owed.
“It’s demoralizing,” she said.
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Gee said she and other teachers are now spending time outside of their workdays trying to troubleshoot accounting problems created by the district’s poor rollout of the new system.
“Check your bank account, check your bank account! We keep telling everyone,” said Nathalie Hrizi, a middle school librarian who is taking a leave of absence this year to work with the teachers union.
At first, she didn’t know she had to fill out a timesheet, so she didn’t get paid last month, she said. When she reported it, the district sent her a check, but it bounced.
“When I saw that, I called the bank. They told me that it was probably due to a lack of funds on the other banking institution, that's usually what happens. I immediately freaked out,” Hrizi said.
The district’s move to EMPowerSF was a much-needed upgrade because the old system had a real lack of functionality, Hrizi said.
But, “the transition ... was poorly rolled out,” she said. “They did not properly staff the office in charge of the transition.”
Mayor London Breed has offered to help out the district, the teachers union said, but it's unclear how, and her offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, hundreds of teachers have signed up to join a class-action lawsuit the union is threatening to file. Prince is one of them. He says his fiancée, who works for a corporation, was already in disbelief that Prince buys many of his own teaching supplies.
“But then the idea that I would just be working for free for several months, she can't comprehend it. She says if anything was wrong with her check, within 24 hours HR would pay for it. You'd have a check or direct deposit," he said.
"But I’ve been waiting three months now. It's crazy."
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