'Lot of Challenges, But So Much Opportunity': New San Francisco School Chief on Taking the Reins in a Turbulent Time

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A man in a blazer smiles while standing near a school.
Matt Wayne, the new superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, just finished his first week on the job. (Courtesy of Hayward Unified School District)

Matt Wayne just finished his first week on the job as the new superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, where he replaces Vincent Matthews, who retired last month.

Wayne, who led Hayward schools for the last five years, now heads up one of the largest school districts in the state during a particularly turbulent time. SFUSD faces a slew of challenges, including (but certainly not limited to) a $125 million budget deficit, declining enrollment, racial equity issues, ongoing teacher payroll problems and lingering frustration from parents over how long it took the district to reopen its schools during the pandemic.

KQED's Adhiti Bandlamudi spoke to Wayne on Friday about how he plans to hit the ground running and address some of those issues head-on.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ADHITI BANDLAMUDI: What's the biggest challenge you see as you move into this new position?

MATT WAYNE: I think the biggest challenge is what many districts face in education, and particularly in San Francisco: just the need to reset and recover from two-plus years of a pandemic, and what has been the most challenging time for me in my education career and I think for educators everywhere. And then on top of that, some of the specific challenges San Francisco has faced, I think I'm coming in understanding there needs to be some time and space for healing and coming together as a community.

When you joined Hayward Unified several years ago, that district was also going through a turbulent time. Your predecessor had been fired for misusing public funds and had a reputation for a bad temper. Do you feel like that experience prepared you in some way for what you're coming into now?

Definitely. I feel like I understand what it means to lead during these challenging times. And so yes, that was another situation where it was important to come in and listen and learn and help bring the community together. And I definitely felt like I was able to make connections with the city and with the parents and with families. And we were able to focus on what matters, which is student outcomes and serving our students and families.

And I know everybody in San Francisco wants the best for our students, wants the best for our district. And again, there needs to be that time and space to come together and say, "What are we going to focus on then to achieve our goals?"

Back in March, the district transitioned to a new employee payroll system that caused massive issues. Some teachers still aren't getting paid or seeing their benefits calculated correctly. What's the solution there?

As I said, I'm coming in to listen and learn. But I do know there are issues that need to be addressed right away. So this is my first week and I'll be having my third meeting on EmPower [the payroll system] this week just to really understand the problems and know what we need to do moving forward.

Our team has laid out some critical areas where we need to invest to make sure we're addressing these issues that come up. We need to invest in having the appropriate staffing, reviewing our payroll to make sure we're keeping people whole and then just making sure that the system works for us. And so I'm learning what that will take.

And then I'm definitely here to support the team to make sure that we start the school year and that during this school year we're working together to address all those concerns.

I mean, what it did is it revealed that we have a system that really for 20 years hadn't had any investment. And we need to now make sure that we're addressing those issues and setting up a system that's going to work for us for the next 20 years.

San Francisco Unified faces a budget crisis with a projected deficit of over $125 million per year, and its financial management is under scrutiny from the state. How do you plan to bridge that gap?

Well, fortunately the budget for 2022-23 brings good news for education. It's a record education budget that is definitely going to help us.

And then, what I'm excited about in starting my superintendency is the board has committed to a process where we're going to go through to update our vision and values and, most importantly, set goals for student outcomes. Because, yes, we have a budget issue, but a budget is really about — what are our priorities? And so by going through this process, we'll make sure we're identifying our priorities around student outcomes and then can organize our resources around that.

The board and the district did a good job of making sure we can meet our fiscal obligations for the 2022-23 school year. And so we have time this year to understand our priorities and then align the budget according to those priorities.

Some people have raised concerns that the district is top heavy, with too many highly paid employees at the district office level. Would you do an audit and possible reorganization to address those concerns?

As I'm coming in, there's a lot of transitions at the district level. I'm definitely going to be looking at everything in the organization. We'll be going through a process to assess how we're organized. There's an opportunity to do an audit and then determine how we can meet the needs of our schools.

But if we're going to have district-wide student goals for student outcomes, we need to have a district office that's supporting that. But how can it be organized so it's efficient and effective and where our resources are supporting our students and our schools?

The district has restored merit-based admissions at Lowell High School, but some have suggested that it might be violating state law by doing so. What approach are you planning to take in that debate on the school status as an elite academic institution and racial equity?

What I'm pleased about is that the board, in their resolution, committed to a process of coming together as a community to really reenvision our high school design overall, as well as what we're doing with our selective high schools, such as Lowell and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. And I think there does need to be that time to talk through what are our values and how do we make sure our schools and the opportunities provided to our high school students reflect those values.

I greatly value educational equity and want to make sure that our systems and structures are not replicating inequities. And I also want to make sure that we're providing an excellent education to our students, so that families feel confident when they send their students to high school that they are going to have a rigorous academic experience and be prepared for college or a career when they leave.

Enrollment has declined about 5% this year. That's about 2,500 students who won't be attending SFUSD schools. This is partially because some parents have turned to private schools. Others have opted to homeschool their kids, and some have just left the city. How do you plan to bring those students back to the district? Will you need to consider closing some schools?

So again, this is part of the listening and learning to understand the why behind the enrollment drop. You named a few reasons, but I think this really needs to be examined and assessed. Most districts in California are experiencing declining enrollment. And so, the question becomes what's within our control — such as, if families aren't feeling that the programs we're providing are serving them. And then, what's not within our control — like, when we're talking about families not being able to afford to live in the city or to live in the Bay Area and moving to other areas.

I think we need to examine this, identify those areas that are within our control and then think through, what do we do to either bring the students back or organize our schools so that they're meeting the community needs?

What was the most daunting aspect about taking this job? And now that you're a week into it, has that perspective changed at all?

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What is both daunting and exciting about joining SF Unified is that it's such a vibrant city and vibrant district and vibrant community that it's really neat to come in and know how invested people are in the schools and the school district and wanting this district to thrive and do well.

I think what's daunting is everybody wants the school district to thrive and do well. And there's so many ideas for how to do that, that how are we going to take those in and, again, focus on a few things that really matter to improve student outcomes?

Because that's what we need to be about as a district. We're here to ensure that our students are learning and achieving and leaving prepared for the 21st century.

Are there other concerns you're thinking about as you enter this new role? Something I didn't ask you that you'd like to talk about?

I'd just say, of course, I'm coming in with open eyes and that there's a lot of challenges, but there's also so much opportunity. And yes, it's a new district and a larger district, but it's still a district of schools to support students. And I want to make sure that I'm always keeping students at the center.