Sac schools flirting with disaster
In November 2017, Sacramento City Unified School District and the union representing its teachers reached an eleventh-hour agreement to avert a strike.
Among the Sacramento City Teachers Association’s demands were salary increases, reduced class sizes and additional nurses and school psychologists. At the time, the district was in the black and the parties fleshed out an agreement with the help of Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
Less than two years later, the district is in the red and trying to avoid both a state takeover and its first teacher strike since 1989.
At a March 15 press conference, SCTA President David Fisher cited the district’s “unlawful, unfair labor practices” as the reason that 92 percent of the union’s members authorized a strike. Fisher said SCTA, which represents about 2,500 teachers, librarians, psychologists and others, has requested a sit-down with Superintendent Jorge Aguilar at the end of March to work on a solution and avoid a strike.
“We don’t want to go to a strike,” Fisher said. “However, that is our lawful way of getting the district to live up to its commitments.”
At the same time, the district is on the brink of a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Last August, the Sacramento County Office of Education rejected the district’s adopted budget for 2018-19, citing a projected $62.1 million deficit over the next two school years. Subsequent revised budgets were also rejected.
A December 2018 report from the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, projected the district would be insolvent by 2019. The team, which helps California school districts identify, prevent and resolve financial issues, called for $30 million in reductions, imploring the district to focus on cuts that could be made immediately.
“Without action, state intervention is certain,” the FCMAT report summarized. “Failure to act quickly and decisively will result in imminent fiscal insolvency and loss of local control.”
The district has until June 30 to figure out how to cut $35 million over the next two years, or risk running out of money by November. If that happens, the district will have to take out an emergency loan from the state, which would shift decision-making power from the elected local board to a state-appointed administrator.
Four of the five labor unions representing SCUSD employees have agreed to work together on a plan to make the necessary cuts in the next two years to avoid state receivership.
As the district works to identify cuts before the summer deadline, the school district may also be the latest in California to see its teachers walk out. In January, a high-profile teachers strike got the Los Angeles Unified School District to commit to limits on class sizes and nurses. In February, a strike led Oakland Unified School District to agree to a halt on school closures and an 11 percent pay increase.
At the heart of the tension between teachers and administrators are conflicting interpretations of the deal they reached in 2017.
The district and SCTA agreed they were losing mid-career teachers who could earn more at nearby districts. In the framework agreement made at Steinberg’s home, teachers received three flat raises of 2.5 percent, two implemented retroactively and the third on July 1, 2018.
Aguilar and school board president Jessie Ryan have said they agreed the salary hikes would cap out at 11 percent, including a 3.5 percent salary increase for mid-career teachers.
“The board [has] always said we wanted to give the maximum amount we could afford and a total raise of 11 percent, we felt, was as generous as we could be,” Ryan told SN&R.
But SCTA says that cap only applied to the 2018-19 contract and that the deal made mid-career teachers eligible for higher salaries sooner. “It was always known that the union-proposed salary schedule would cost more than 3.5% in ongoing years,” union Vice President Nikki Milevsky said in a written response.
In November, the district filed a complaint; a judge sent the matter to arbitration.
“Right now we’re not in the space where we can work together in a healthy way,” said teacher Kara Synhorst, who voted for a strike, attended SCUSD schools and now sends her children to them.
“Do I want to strike? No,” she added. “I don’t think anybody ever wants to strike. You’re leaving your students in the lurch and the students are what you’re here for every day.”
As parents of children in the schools, Aguilar and Ryan say they and three other school board members are personally invested in the district’s finances.
Leticia Garcia, who was elected to the board in 2018, has twin daughters in fourth grade. In the short term, she worries about how a strike will impact the quality of education for her daughters and other students.
Working parents who can’t take time off will have to send their students to schools that may be staffed with substitutes or staff from nearby districts. If parents can keep students home, their projects and lessons are delayed.
“There’s a loss of learning time for our kids, there’s a loss of revenue for the district and no one wins here,” Garcia said. “These are days [students] just don’t get back.”
Her father was a union member, which she said afforded him better working conditions and health benefits. But she believes the best way forward is to work together on a budget solution.
“Strike or no strike, we have to address this budget shortfall and I’m confident we will,” she said. “A state takeover is just not an option.”
Since 1990, only nine districts in California have taken out state emergency loans, with several taking well over a decade to pay them back.
When districts receive these loans, decision-making shifts from the school board to an adviser or trustee appointed by the county superintendent of schools, state superintendent of public instruction and the president of the state board of education.
Last year’s FCMAT report identified “severe financial risks in many areas” and found the district’s business department to be disjointed and lacking in experience and communication with schools and other departments. As salary and benefits make up a large portion of any district’s budget, the report stated those areas must be considered for reductions.
The SCTA contends that the district can make the necessary cuts without going back on the salary schedule. It has developed its own plan for $60 million in savings by cutting central office staff, controlling administrators’ vacations, changing to less costly health plans and reducing the use of outside lawyers for labor relations.
“We’re quite openly saying that the district needs to make the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” Fisher said at the March 15 announcement.
Many parents who attended a board meeting to defend teachers and after-school programs on the chopping block agreed. But Aguilar says the district’s financial state is too dire to rely primarily on administrator cuts.
Last month, SCTA sent a request to state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond to have the California Department of Education audit and investigate the district.
Among the concerns raised in the 215-page request are the possible misuse of funds at two high schools and a potential conflict of interest stemming from Aguilar’s employment with UC Merced’s Center for Educational Partnerships.
When Aguilar was hired by SCUSD in 2017, he also held the title of associate vice chancellor of UC Merced’s Center for Educational Partnerships and was paid 5 percent of the full salary, about $8,600 a year. That June, SCUSD entered into an agreement with the center to share student data, including birth date, contact information, grade-point average and parents’ education level.
Aguilar said the partnership is intended to assess students’ needs in real time and provide individualized support to help them graduate and go on to college. “The nexus between K-12 and higher education is one that is not as strong as it can be,” he told SN&R. “We thought that we could advance this vision of equity, access and social justice.”
He said the district has already seen positive results, with an increase of graduation rates and completion of college-prep courses. The four-year contract could cost SCUSD up to $1.75 million.
“The idea that we’re paying UC Merced to share data and he’s getting a stipend from them … I mean, it looks shady,” said Synhorst, the teacher.
Thurmond has not said whether CDE will investigate the district, but state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, has supported an audit.
The SCTA says the superintendent’s actions are damaging the system. “The real issues are serious fiscal mismanagement,” Milevsky said.