Teachers, parents and community members speak with Superintendent Matt Wayne on EMPowerSF and academic racial disparities
by Sophia Chupein
SFUSD Superintendent Matt Wayne heard the Bayview Hunters Point community loud and clear at the Willie Brown Jr. Middle School Listening and Learning Town Hall this Oct. 4. Parents, teachers and community members from the district and beyond gathered to express their thoughts and concerns to the Superintendent. Chief among their concerns were the almost year-long SFUSD payroll fiasco and the racial achievement gap that split wide open during the pandemic.
After Superintendent Wayne entered his position on July 1, he swiftly implemented his 117-day plan to become more acquainted with the district, prioritizing listening to and learning from everyone involved in SFUSD. He hopes that this will facilitate a strategy that will address the district’s most pressing issues.
Educators were among the first to speak up. Ainye Long, Department Chair of Mathematics at Willie Brown Middle School, spoke to the immense burden placed on teachers.
“There is a shortage, and it is real – and it’s not because we’re not here and we don’t want to be here. This is my 16th year of teaching and I drive from Oakland every morning to be at Willie Brown … It is really really hard to have 31 students in my mathematics classroom and I don’t know how I’m going to buy groceries.”
Long’s experience mirrors that of many teachers in SFUSD. Long commutes and packed classrooms, along with the universal stressors that come with a global pandemic, make for an incredibly hard workweek. Over the course of the pandemic, hundreds of teachers in the district have made sacrifice after sacrifice to remain committed to their students.
However, many have had no choice but to resign. SFUSD has never paid its teachers enough to account for the cost of living in San Francisco. This, coupled with the economic recession that accompanied the lockdown, is continuing to pull many educators closer and closer to the poverty line.
The EMPower payroll catastrophe
In addition to already-low wages, ongoing payroll issues are adding fuel to the fire. Many teachers have cited issues with EMPowerSF, the new payroll system that SFUSD adopted in January of this year, as the reason for leaving the school district.
Mispayment issues with EMPower started popping up within the first month of operation, creating so much strife that teachers and union members from United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) occupied the district’s headquarters for four days, making national headlines. While SFUSD eventually met their demands and worked with educators to develop an internal priority list to address the most urgent cases of mispayment, the costly payroll processor continues to make life needlessly difficult.
In mid-September, SFUSD approved another $2.8 million to fix the EMPower catastrophe, piling onto the initial $14 million price tag. When a concerned SFUSD parent asked Dr. Wayne about the approval, the superintendent cited staffing issues as one of the main problems.
“The board approved additional positions back in April to have people in HR payroll technology. We have not been able to fill those positions.” He elaborated, assuring that this extra investment, along with the salary savings from understaffing, will allow the district to bring on experienced consultants and fix the payroll issues.
While this may be an acceptable solution for now, it does not get to the root of the payroll debacle. During a previous town hall meeting with the superintendent at Lincoln High School, SFUSD teacher Maddie Williams noticed a glaring lack of staff at the payroll office when she visited.
Williams recalled speaking with “just a completely exhausted payroll clerk, like near tears, they’re just so stretched thin, and they said ‘we just can’t get anyone to work here because we don’t pay at the level of the city and county of San Francisco.’” Her request for Superintendent Wayne was to “give attractive, market-rate salaries to our payroll office.”
Most of us understand that supporting our teachers, paraeducators and other school staff is critical to creating safe and successful learning environments for our students. These payroll issues, if nothing else, show that the problem is much larger.
SFUSD’s issues mirror the larger supply-chain deterioration that the pandemic has brought to light: Our institutions crumble when all workers aren’t paid livable wages.
The Black achievement gap
Another hot topic among the Bayview community members who attended the event was the racial and ethnic academic achievement gap, a historic issue that has become increasingly dire since the lockdown in 2020.
Will Paris is the program manager for the 100% College Prep Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides academic resources to students in underserved communities. Paris asked the superintendent about his next steps for the African American Achievement & Leadership Initiative (AALI), which started setting annual goals in 2015 to close the achievement gap for African American students. The superintendent assured the room that these initiatives will continue.
Paris later clarified his concerns: “[AALI] has had some success, and we’re wanting to continue to grow it, but what we want to make sure is that as we move into this new space and we get a new superintendent that we don’t lose all of the work.”
The importance of this initiative cannot be overstated, especially considering the havoc wreaked on Black families during the pandemic. At Willie Brown Jr. Middle School alone, Black student attendance dropped lower than any other racial or ethnic group at the school during the pandemic.
The percent of Black students who attended the school less than 90% of the time increased from 29% during the 2019-2020 school year to 68% for the 2021-2022 school year, peaking at 77% during the 2020-2021 school year. This means that Black middle schoolers at Willie Brown exhibited a much steeper drop in attendance than the SFUSD average for Black middle schoolers.
Pacific Islander achievement gap
The achievement gap, of course, does not exclusively apply to Black students. In fact, though they only comprise a small percentage of SFUSD students, Samoan and other Pacific Islander middle schoolers had the lowest attendance among all SFUSD middle schoolers between 2019 and 2022.
Samoan middle schoolers in particular exhibited an attendance drop of about 51% over those two years, the steepest drop among all races and ethnicities. Nearly all of these students live in and around Bayview Hunters Point.
John Naur, an SFUSD alum and grandparent to current students, called the room’s attention to this lesser-known disparity. “Let’s reclaim our right of existence, let’s go get our piece of the pie, because we’re always getting left out, but yet our numbers are always up there in the top three, top five of all the negative statistics.”
Naur, who works with a local non-profit fighting for more leadership opportunities for Samoan kids, revealed exactly how dire the situation is for these students. A 2021 national study revealed that American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were among the most negatively impacted by the pandemic overall, with a staggering 73% living in low-income households.
“Without low-income housing, our community pretty much wouldn’t even exist here,” explains Naur. Superintendent Wayne responded to both Paris and Naur by acknowledging the need for transparency about how the district’s budget aligns with its goals.
What we love about our schools
We need to hold our leaders accountable for each of these issues. However, we should never let this cloud the amazing community-building that happens in and around Bayview Hunters Point schools, especially during the pandemic. One parent told the superintendent that Willie Brown Jr. Middle School’s all-hands-on-deck approach to uplifting students is what she loves about it.
“What has worked here is partnership. It’s the whole village approach to where the parents, the administration, the educators, the students all have a voice, and all have some decision-making power in what happens in our community.” Many other teachers and parents showed the same appreciation for the community that has held the school together over the past two-and-a-half years.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that an already crumbling economic and societal foundation cannot withstand the pressure of emergency situations like Covid-19. Without a basic reprioritization within SFUSD about what schools and communities really need, we won’t see meaningful progress in the near nor the distant future.
The district needs to prioritize the health, safety and financial stability of our teachers and staff. The resiliency of Bayview Hunters Point and communities like it stems from these essential workers. All parents and students want their public schools to be financial priorities in the same way that Lowell High School is. Moreover, SFUSD needs to continually revisit and fund programs that aim to close the academic achievement gap present in this city. San Francisco is great at thinking up solutions, it’s the implementation that needs work.
This article was funded by the National Association of Black Journalists 2022 Black Press Grant. Sophia Chupein is the Social Media Manager and a community journalist for the SF Bay View. She holds a BA in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. Sophia can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.