When Hector Pineda arrived for an all-staff meeting last Monday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in San Francisco’s Portola district, 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 7th 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 in Visitacion Valley, and he was getting paid for that work. But he also depends on income from his teaching at the district’s online school and his work teaching credit recovery at night school.

Just as he was about to pay for his wedding, Prince found he was being short-changed. “Graciously, I have family to support me, so I turned to them. And my fiance, 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,” Prince said.

As many as 1,500 educators in the San Francisco school district may be having some kind of problem with their paychecks or haven’t been paid at all in the last month, according to the teachers’ union.

The problem stems from the district’s switching to a new accounting system, but may also speak to deeper troubles within the finance department.

The turmoil comes at a time when district and board leadership has been under scrutiny for its 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 system to EMPower SF, the new system which cost the district $9.5 million.

“This is inexcusable and should not have happened,” Dudnick said.

The district says the vast majority of the district’s 10,000 employees have been properly paid via EMPowerSF, but the number of teachers finding issues with their pay keeps growing. Teachers are paid monthly, so many are just now finding issues. Others began seeing and reporting problems two months ago.

The district has moved 10 staff from other duties to support payroll, a district spokesperson said in a statement, and 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 two different work roles. They might work as a para-educator, a substitute, or work Saturday school or at a work-recovery program. Some are on leave. But there are also issues with benefits and withholdings.

Teacher Elia Romero 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 this coming 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. 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 its initial cost, the school board approved two more payments totaling an additional $4.2 million to support the launch of EMPowerSF last year. “They said the additional money was needed for more transitional time and prep and people to go live,” said school board commissioner Matt Alexander.

“They wanted all that money to make for a smooth roll-out, but all the stuff that they were trying to prevent, is happening. It is anything but smooth,” he said. Alexander says he is horribly frustrated with the slow pace of getting teachers paid.

Teachers get paid once a month, so missing their money has created panic for some, who spoke out angrily during recent school board meetings.

Over a hundred educators had to take time off teaching and parent-teacher conferences last week to attend a district pop-up clinic to try and fix their paychecks.

So far, the district has cut 861 checks to educators, according to the teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco, which represents 6,500 teachers in the district. The district says the vast majority of all of its 10,000 employees have been compensated without trouble since the rollout of the new payroll system.

The district says it has set up a support ticketing system to help accurately track and follow up on every issue of non-payment or underpayment.

Lihn Gee has filed several tickets with the district’s system since she realized 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 teaches at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Visitacion Valley, as well as online teaching and credit recovery teaching at night.

“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 … I have been very patient, but it’s infuriating. Like you’re not respecting the work that we’re doing,” Gee said.

Gee got an email Friday morning from a person who works in the district telling her to check her bank account. When she did, Gee found the district had deposited just $130 of the $4,500 they owe her.

“It’s demoralizing,” Gee said.

Ghee says she and other teachers are now taking hours 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, head of substitutes for UESF. To do that job, Hrizi is on leave from her position as a middle school librarian.

At first, she didn’t know she had to fill out a timesheet, so she didn’t get paid last month. When she reported it, the district cut 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.

Hrizi was concerned about her account being overdrawn, but also worried because she knew the union had been working to get the district to cut checks to other teachers who had been reporting problems since the new system rolled out in January, and those checks might be bouncing too.

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 under Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh was poorly rolled out,” Hrizi said. “They did not properly staff the office in charge of the transition.”

UESF president Cassondra Curiel says Mayor London Breed has offered to help out the district, but it’s unclear how. The Mayor’s Office 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 fiance, 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 twenty-four hours HR would pay for it, you’d have a check or direct deposit,” Prince said.

“But I’ve been waiting three months now. It’s crazy.”

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