Strike none: ‘Last minute’ deal averts teacher walkout affecting 43,000 Sacramento students

Mayor Darrell Steinberg brokers deal that promises salary increases, makes goals of reducing class sizes and stabilizing arts funding

A large crowd armed with multilingual signs attended a November 2 rally in support of a new contract for the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

A large crowd armed with multilingual signs attended a November 2 rally in support of a new contract for the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

Photo by Matt Kramer

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association called off its strike last week after an 11th hour resolution was brokered by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The deal came in the wake of a November 2 rally that saw nearly 1,500 teachers, parents and students protesting for smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay, among other issues.

The deal, reached Saturday, November 5, represents an armistice after more than a year of acrimonious negotiations between the teachers’ union and Sacramento City Unified School District.

The tentative contract promises to raise teacher pay a total of 11 percent through next year, in part through retroactive salary hikes; expand access to arts and music programs; and monitor student progress without what the teachers’ union views as “unnecessary” testing. The changes will come without cuts to medical benefits or increases in K-3 class sizes, according to a summary from SCTA President David Fisher.

The agreement is something that both the teachers’ union and school district portrayed as an all-around win after coming to the precipice of the first mass walkout in 30 years, which could have affected some 43,000 students.

“In the near term, the win is for students because they didn’t have to go through a strike, which would have been disastrous for our community,” said Alex Barrios, chief communications officer for the district.

The road to resolution was long and uncertain.

According to the district, teachers were asking for a 16 percent salary increase and 273 more teachers, part of an offer packet that would have cost the district nearly $93 million.

By comparison, the district was offering a $25 million deal that came with a 6 percent salary increase and funding for additional school psychologists and language, speech and hearing specialists.

An inability to bridge that gap over months of rocky negotiations prompted both sides to prepare for an indefinite teachers’ strike.

Grace Trujillo is relieved that didn’t happen.

Trujillo has a son with special needs who is attending 10th grade at a district-covered charter school. She said she was glad to see the negotiation process bring certain financial issues to light, but still has concerns that the deal doesn’t address the steadily increasing expenses that she believes are the root of the district’s struggles.

“Over time we lost sports, classroom sizes got bigger, we lost band, we lost field trips,” Trujillo said. “Why is this happening? There’s these fixed costs that continue to go up. Every time a fixed cost goes up something has to be cut. … It seems like the costs in Sacramento are higher.”

Trujillo said she largely blames insurance companies for increasing health benefit costs, which must be paid out to the teachers who receive benefits.

Health care benefits played a hidden role in the contractual stalemate. In arguing for retroactive and future raises, the teachers’ union claimed its members were among the lowest paid in the region. The district countered—and a state mediator later agreed—that when the district’s health care benefits were considered, total compensation was on par with those other districts.

The district offers lifetime health benefits to employees after 15 to 20 years of service, as well as free health insurance to employees’ family members. Those benefits will cost the district more than $100 million this school year, a budget report states.

“We owe $621 million in retiree health care costs,” Barrios said. “We are one of only three districts in this region that offers lifetime health insurance.”

The other two districts are in Elk Grove and Davis, he said.

While the tentative contract avoids messing with employee health benefits, both sides are hoping to make smarter insurance purchases in the near future to save money for additional teachers, with the goal of lowering class sizes to 24 students per teacher for fourth grade and up. The 24-to-1 ratio is already in play from kindergarten through third grade.

The two sides have also agreed to pursue a 2020 ballot measure to provide long-term arts and music funding.

For SCTA president Fisher, a second grade teacher, the biggest problem facing the district is teacher attrition, as more experienced personnel decamp for better-paying jobs in neighboring districts.

“Our salary schedule is so weak that … we lose over 200 teachers a year in that range to surrounding districts,” Fisher said. “That’s not counting people that retire. … The turnover rate [is] not good for kids.”

There are more than 100 teaching vacancies, he said.

Barrios and Fisher said some of the deal’s final details are still being hashed out. The SCUSD Board of Education is expected to adopt the new contract at its November 16 meeting, but didn’t have a contract available for public review three days earlier. In a follow-up email, Fisher said that was due to the “last minute” nature of a pact intended “to avert the strike.”

“It’s not done,” Barrios said of the deal.