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SF schools struggle to retain crossing guards

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s crossing guard program is suffering from staffing shortages due to high turnover. (Courtesy SFMTA)

Demand for school street safety measures is rising, but The City doesn’t have enough school crossing guards to oversee every street corner because they keep quitting.

Critics point to low pay and split shifts as the cause of the crossing guard shortage as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates the program, works to shore up its ranks.

Though many of the 100-plus schools in the program have crossing guards, the SFMTA has to “pass” on half of the new requests for crossing guards every year, according to the agency. There are 19 street corners now on the SFMTA’s crossing guard waitlist.
And since August 2015, the SFMTA has hired 146 crossing guards, but “lost” 130 of them.

“Staffing is the number one challenge facing the program,” the agency wrote in a March memorandum to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. SFMTA staff added, “Related to this hiring challenge is the ongoing and growing demand for this popular program.”

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Supervisors Katy Tang and Aaron Peskin, who also serve on the transportation authority board, scheduled a hearing to address the staff shortage in March, but it was pushed back to mid-April.

“I think SFMTA is on the right track in terms of improving the program based on Supervisors’ feedback. But we have to see it to believe it,” Tang told the San Francisco Examiner in an email.

The optimal staffing level for the program is 195 crossing guards, according to the SFMTA. Those street-watchers are posted at San Francisco Unified School District elementary and middle schools, ensuring the safety of kids from kindergarten through the eighth grade.

The job pays $17.96 an hour and sees guards working 75 minutes in the morning and 75 minutes in the afternoon. They don’t work more than 1,040 hours in a calendar year, which is equal to about $9,000 annually, according to the SFMTA, and do not receive any benefits. However, they do accrue sick pay, vacation and holidays.

The SFMTA funds the crossing guard program to the tune of about $2.2 million a year, but that spending hasn’t been enough to retaining employees.

“Interviewing, hiring and training takes place throughout the year but guards sometimes leave as fast as they are hired,” the SFMTA wrote in its memorandum.

Though the transportation authority did not discuss the matter at its March 20 meeting, some public commenters that day said low pay and lack of benefits led to crossing guards quitting the program.

“We asked [the SFMTA] to convert these positions to civil service part-time positions so these folks could qualify for medical and pension benefits,” SEIU field director David Canham told the transportation authority during public comment.

But, he said, the SFMTA rebuffed that request and “didn’t even acknowledge the problem.”

One city crossing guard, Joel Kamisher, told the transportation authority, “It’s not surprising to me some people are quitting their job, there just isn’t enough money.” Split shifts are also troublesome to potential employees, others said publicly.

And a lack of crossing guards can mean a threat to children’s safety, crossing guard Lashawna Branner told the transportation authority.

Lack of hours, pay and benefits concerns parent Alison Collins, who is also running for an open seat on the Board of Education.

Collins’ two 12-year-old girls attend Francisco Middle School. She said the crossing guards there are vital to their safety.

“They do an incredible amount to keep kids safe,” Collins said. “We haven’t had crossing guard issues at our school, but it depends on parents to be that squeaky wheel.”

That leads Collins to worry that less affluent schools, attended by students from low-income families, may have less opportunity to expand their crossing guard programs — or have crossing guards at all.

The SFMTA did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, Supervisor Tang told the Examiner that the SFMTA has made some steps to improve the program.

Previously, the SFMTA had two hiring intervals per year, but now it will hire on a rolling basis. In addition, while parents who want to become crossing guards have been assigned to schools their children didn’t go to, that policy also may soon be “reconsidered” Tang said.

In its memorandum, SFMTA staff wrote that guards represent “the diverse population of San Francisco,” and are often seniors, retirees, parents, grandparents, college students, and immigrants who do not primarily speak English who are “grateful for this employment opportunity.”

The SFMTA planned to propose modifying the crossing guard program by March 31 to improve staff retention.

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