Teachers get schooled
Sacramento city superintendent gives the union a hard lesson in media management
Note to Sacramento labor leaders: If you want to badly lose a public-relations battle, just follow the Sacramento City Teachers Association’s example. The teachers union has been hammered by local media for refusing to give up pay and benefits in order to save teacher jobs.
Sacramento City Unified School District’s Jonathan Raymond, in his first job as school superintendent, has worked press and public opinion like a pro. He says that 250 district teachers will lose their jobs if the union doesn’t make concessions. He’s hired a new “chief communications officer” to help get his point across, to the media and to district employees. And the local press, The Sacramento Bee in particular, has helped Raymond amplify the message that any layoffs will be laid at SCTA’s feet. One Bee cartoon even portrayed a union official driving a bus over a group of young teachers. Ouch.
The SCTA’s rep was further damaged when a Sacramento County grand jury last month blasted the union and praised Raymond. “Superintendent Raymond has an excellent plan to resolve longstanding educational problems in the district and needs the support of the community to accomplish his goals,” the report reads. It goes on to say, “It is time for unions to become more of an advocate for children.”
Meanwhile, SCTA President Linda Tuttle is rarely quoted in stories, either because she couldn’t be reached or didn’t return calls. Perhaps she’d forgotten PR rule No. 1: If you want to look really bad in the press, don’t talk to the press.
She did agree to talk to SN&R however, perhaps feeling that the local alternative-weekly would be more labor-friendly. And it turns out that the SCTA actually does have an alternative plan—which the union claims will save $4.3 million and help prevent teacher layoffs.
State budget cuts, along with declining enrollment in the district, have produced a $31 million budget shortfall this year. The SCUSD board of trustees is expected to vote on its budget June 17; as things stand now, about 243 Sacramento city teachers and counselors won’t be returning next year.
The union representing classified employees—bus drivers, office staff and teacher assistants, among many others—have agreed to make concessions, including several furlough days. And Raymond says he plans to cut administrator costs by $6 million. Now, the district is asking for $3 million to $5 million worth of concessions from the teachers union.
One proposal is for three unpaid furlough days for teachers, something the SCTA is bitterly opposed to. The district also wants teachers to pay higher co-pays for doctor visits and prescription; the typical co-pay is just $5.
But the union points out that Sacramento city teachers make less money than teachers in surrounding districts. They’ve opted instead for better benefits during contract negotiations over the years.
City teachers already rank low compared to those in 20 similar-sized California districts. For teachers with 10 years on the job, Sacramento teachers ranked last in pay and benefits. Fresno, Elk Grove and Stockton teachers all did better.
SCTA President Tuttle says the district could save jobs by diverting funds used for extra-duty pay—stipends for coaching sports or managing the school yearbook—back into salaries. Teachers who perform extra duty would receive credit toward the annually required 18 hours of “professional development.”
Tuttle says the district could also save money by cutting back the number of meetings and trainings held during school hours. Teachers are required to report to weekly meetings, called “common planning time,” and the district often pays substitutes to fill in during those hours.
“Why is it that the only option is furloughs and co-pays? We’ve got a lot of other ideas before we go there,” Tuttle said. “But there’s been no willingness even to consider any of these options.”
Instead, earlier this year, Raymond tried to get the state Public Employment Relation Board to declare an “impasse” in labor negotiations, even though the teacher’s contract technically isn’t up for renegotiation until next year. But PERB rejected the district’s request, leaving both sides stuck.
“As much as they think we’re entrenched, we think they’re entrenched,” Tuttle explained.
Still, Tuttle and Raymond were due to meet informally earlier this week. And Raymond told SN&R he’ll listen to the union’s proposals. “I think looking at the common-planning time is viable. But so are three furlough days. We can look at those things, but it’s going to take working together to find some common ground,” Raymond said.
It seems unlikely the union and district will find enough common ground to save every job, though. “Probably, some jobs will be gone,” Tuttle explained, noting that district enrollment is down to 43,000 students, from a high of 52,000 a few years ago. “Sure we could say furloughs for everyone, and try to keep the maximum number of jobs, and keep those union dues coming in. But we’ll just be back in the same place next year.”
Teachers certainly aren’t unanimous on the issues of furloughs or co-pays. One teacher, who asked her name not be used in this story, explained it this way: “I’ve heard a lot of teachers say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do furloughs if it will save young teachers’ jobs.’ But when those young teachers are old crusty teachers like me, I want them to have good pay and benefits, too.”
High-school teacher Lori Jablonski, recently elected to serve on the SCTA board of representatives, said she would be happy to donate some of her pay to help save jobs, something else that has been discussed within the union. But she said it would be a mistake to start imposing furloughs now.
“Honestly, we think it’s bad for kids. Shaving off three days this year, and maybe three days next year. It’s a race to the bottom,” said Jablonski.
Jablonski was elected to the union board as part of a slate of candidates calling themselves REAL teachers—Responsive Experienced Accountable Leadership. She said they ran partly because they felt the union was not being effective in communicating with the public. “I think we were getting frustrated with a union that was acting a little overwhelmed and reactive,” she said.
That’s in contrast to superintendent Raymond, who’s been much better at the PR game. One of the first things he did was to hire a $100,000 salary chief of staff. Then, he beefed up the district’s public-relations department and created the position of “chief communications officer,” a $114,000 a year job. (Raymond is quick to point out that those positions were funded by eliminating other high-paid positions, such as chief financial officer.)
Raymond is a former Republican congressional candidate from Massachusetts but has a fairly brief work history in public schools. From 2006 to 2008, he was “chief accountability officer” in the Charlotte Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina. But he never dealt with labor issues there. And North Carolina is a “right to work” state with a teachers association that has considerably less clout than California teacher unions.
Raymond got his training as a superintendent from the Broad Superintendents Academy, funded by The Broad Foundation, a proponent of the charter-schools movement, and that’s put some teachers on their guard.
Teachers were certainly suspicious after the release of a report by a Sacramento County grand jury, which was largely laudatory of Raymond and highly critical of the SCTA. The report, “Last Chance to Put Children First,” got a lot of play in the press. And many teachers noted the title was quite similar to Raymond’s own vision statement, “Putting Children First,” which he released last September.
School district officials said no one in the district’s central office initiated the grand-jury complaint, and that Raymond had not been in contact with the grand jury. Tuttle said the grand jury didn’t contact her or anyone else in union leadership to get their side of the story, either.
This has been par for the course for Tuttle and the SCTA, still trying to catch up in the public-relations game.