The Public Eye

Sacramento City Unified wants to cut benefits in exchange for higher raises

Students stroll the halls of West Campus High School, part of Sacramento City Unified School District.
Students stroll the halls of West Campus High School, part of Sacramento City Unified School District.

The Sacramento City Unified School District and its teachers union generally agree that their teachers deserve higher salaries, considering that counterparts in nearby districts receive larger paychecks on average.

But there is disagreement over whether increasing pay means the district should reduce the teachers’ health and welfare benefits, which are the most generous in the Sacramento region. The district in 2014-15 spent $20,638 on average for each of its more than 2,300 teachers, according to School Services of California, which advises school districts on budget matters.

The dispute comes as Sacramento City Unified administrators and the Sacramento City Teachers Association discuss the size of a retroactive raise for the current school year. The pay bump was triggered by an increase in state funding that enables the district to provide higher salaries to teachers.

The district offered a 2.5 percent retroactive raise. Teachers asked for 5 percent. Superintendent Jose Banda said in an interview that the district is willing to pay 5 percent – but only in exchange for limits on post-retirement health care benefits for future hires. The school district currently provides lifetime health care for employees who work enough years to qualify.

“They’re focused on pay increases,” Banda said Friday. “We’d love to give pay increases. Even though we’re not at the top in salary, we’re at the very top in terms of health benefits. It’s all cyclical.”

Teachers in Sacramento City Unified earn less in pay than teachers in most other comparable districts in the region, according to School Services data.

The district’s average teacher salary for 2014-15 was $67,009. That ranked Sacramento City Unified teachers fourth from the bottom out of 14 comparable districts in the region. It also fell below the statewide average of $73,687.

“The district’s finances are probably better than they have been in a generation,” said SCTA Executive Director John Borsos. “They are making these decisions that are crippling. The 5 percent (SCTA proposes) doesn’t put us at the top on wages. It’s modest compared to what others are making.”

Borsos said the salary disparity worsened since July 1, the start of the current school year. SCTA members received a 1 percent pay increase at the start of the fiscal year. Teachers in the San Juan district received 3.25 percent. And Folsom Cordova teachers received 4.5 percent.

Banda contends that the district’s generous benefits package makes up for the salary lag. In total compensation, School Services data show that Sacramento City Unified teachers ranked among the highest in the region in 2014-15.

“We totally agree we want our teachers to be well-compensated, and we want them to be in the top tier of salaries,” Banda said. “We keep saying it’s about total compensation. I think for us to be able to be fiscally solvent going forward and maintain positive budgets, we’re having to address the whole thing.”

Sacramento City Unified is the only large Sacramento area district that covers the full cost of premiums for medical, dental and vision care for teachers and their family members.

Some other districts come close; the San Juan Unified School District covers premiums for employees but requires them to pay 25 percent of premiums for family members. Annual price tag for that is an average $13,725 yearly per teacher, according to School Services.

The Rocklin Unified School District this school year provides the first $788 in monthly costs for full-time teachers. That translates to an average district contribution of $6,924 per teacher. Teachers pay on top of that if they want more costly medical plans or add family members to the coverage.

Folsom Cordova Unified School District teachers can receive premium-free health care for themselves but pay a portion of coverage for family members. Their benefits package is worth $8,277 on average.

Banda’s proposal appeared to be an effort to reduce future district costs for retirement benefits in exchange for higher pay. Post-retirement benefits, which fund premiums for retired teachers for life, cost the district $14 million in 2014-15.

The Banda proposal was a non-starter for the teachers. The association filed for impasse and is headed to mediation with the district.

SCTA leaders say this is not the time to talk about health benefits. The teacher contract expires at the end of June, and a teacher shortfall looms for fall 2016, when the district will need another 175 teachers at schools to accommodate attrition, retirements and newly reduced class sizes for kindergarten through third grade.

SCTA President Nikki Milevsky said lifetime benefits “are what keep teachers in our district. It’s like the dam that is keeping our teachers from flooding away to other districts.”

“Today we have students going to schools without a (fully) credentialed teacher,” she said. “We have them trying to learn Spanish from a substitute who doesn’t speak Spanish. Those students deserve to have a fully credentialed teacher now.”