Sac Unified teachers at crisis point, part 1: How did we get to now?

Sacramento Bee reporter, editor break down pending SCUSD strike issues

Sacramento City Unified School District faces a June deadline to balance the budget and avoid a state takeover. Teachers plan an April 11, 2019 strike.
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Sacramento City Unified School District faces a June deadline to balance the budget and avoid a state takeover. Teachers plan an April 11, 2019 strike.

Teachers at the Sacramento City Unified School District are striking for one day, on April 11. Columnist Marcos Bretón breaks down the issues. Part two of three here. Part three of three herePart one of three:

The impending teacher strike Thursday deeply troubles a lot of people, considering that the district is close to running out of money unless it can close a $35-million budget deficit.

If a district serving more than 40,000 kids effectively goes bankrupt, it will have to be bailed out by the state.

By all accounts, this would be devastating because draconian cuts would need to be made to programs for kids to satisfy the debt service of the district. A lot of people would lose their jobs, including a lot of teachers.

It would also damage efforts by Sacramento to recruit businesses to relocate here given that good schools are a major indicator of quality of life.


Confused? Let me help. What follows is my explanation of why we are here, facing a possible outcome that would badly damage a district charged with educating Sacramento’s future workforce.

Who is to blame for the mess we are in right now?

There is plenty to go around. But you know who is most to blame? You are. I am. We are. Our Sacramento community, like communities in Oakland and Los Angeles, want it both ways.

We want to support our teachers in their efforts to be paid as much as they can because they deserve it. But then we get furious when the budget hammer falls after we pay our teachers.

That’s what happened in Los Angeles. Their teachers went on strike in January. Hollywood stars walked the picket lines with them. The teachers got their raises. And then when the media circus turned away, the Los Angeles Unified School District got the bad news: They couldn’t afford the raises. Now they want the taxpayers to ante up with a parcel tax to plug the hole and big business is lining up against it. It’s a disaster.

Oakland teachers went on strike in February. The community amassed to support them. They got their raises. And now? They are cutting more than $20 million in programs for kids to pay for raises and may have to make more. It’s a disaster.

Both those cities have serious cognitive dissonance over this reality: Parents, community members and teachers union don’t want to see or admit that giving teachers their last raises created even more financial distress.

Hello? Are we paying attention?

Wait! That hasn’t happened in Sacramento, has it?

Yes, it has. In the fall of 2017, Sacramento teachers massed to strike for higher wages. The community joined them. Remember? It was only 18 months ago. Have you forgotten already? Mayor Darrell Steinberg stepped in. The two sides came to an agreement. It was all ratified at the Dec 7, 2017 school board meeting.

But what got totally overlooked?

Dave Gordon, the county superintendent of education, told school board members that night they couldn’t afford the deal they had cut with teachers. Here is what Gordon said in a written report that he presented to the board:

“Based on the review of the multi-year projections provided by the district, our office has concerns over the district’s ability to afford this compensation package and maintain fiscal solvency.” Guess what happened? The district is now facing insolvency while people point fingers at everyone but themselves.

Aren’t district board members and the superintendent at fault for giving teachers the raises in the first place?

This question gets asked a lot now by people looking to blame someone. First, let’s remember that Sac City Superintendent Jorge Aguilar had just moved to Sacramento from Fresno in July of 2017. He was a rookie superintendent stepping into 20-plus years of labor strife in the district he inherited. Aguilar needed months to unpack how bad Sac City’s finances truly are.

Meanwhile, the members of the Sacramento City Unified School District board get a stipend of roughly $780 a month. They have day jobs, lives, commitments. And so there they were, in the fall of 2017, trying to avert the first teachers strike in Sacramento since the late 1980s.

You didn’t have to be blind to see that the public was with the teachers. There was a large rally at Serna Center, the south Sacramento headquarters of the district, that said the Sacramento community was speaking as one: Pay the teachers!

Plenty of people around town – parents and elected officials – now, after the fact, say: “Well, I get it, but that’s too bad. I know it’s hard saying ‘no’ to your friends but they should have said ‘no.’”

OK, to which I reply: Would you have done that? If you strapped them all to a lie detector tests, I know of few elected officials in Sacramento would truthfully answer that they would have stood up to teachers and denied them their raises.

And that goes for the public, too. You wanted the teaches to get paid. I wanted the teachers get paid. But when Gordon spoke up, we either didn’t hear it, refused to hear or didn’t believe it.

So if we truly believe that the district superintendent and board members were at fault for giving teachers raises, then aren’t the teachers at fault, too, for demanding the raises while threatening to strike? Aren’t the parents and community members who supported the teachers at fault for demanding the raises too?

I don’t believe this! Sacramento and California are flowing with money. The City of Sacramento helped fund Golden 1 Center. Why can’t they do the same for schools? And with all the billionaires in California, why can’t the state do more?

Let’s take the city part first because this argument pops up all the time on social media, and it’s asinine. People! Except for parcel taxes, cities don’t directly fund schools. States and the feds fund schools.

Golden 1 Center was a land deal in which the city essentially monetized its parking assets and leveraged them into a bond that helped pay for the arena. But the Sacramento Kings are making lease payments that will reimburse the bond over the 30-year lease of the arena.

For their part, the Kings built a spectacular hotel and downtown mall to accompany the arena. The resulting increased property values have lifted the fortunes of downtown Sacramento.

This and other gripes simply detract from the point at hand: Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles could not afford the teacher pay raises they gave without some major financial corrections to pay for them.

It’s true: In his inaugural address, Gov. Gavin Newsom decried how California is 41st in the U.S. in per-pupil spending. Kamala Harris is running for president and pushing a policy in which the feds would help increase teacher pay.

If both of them succeed, that would be great. All teachers deserve to be paid more.

But those are long-term plays and Sac City is facing insolvency now. We got here, in part, because of those teacher raises given in the fall of 2017. Gordon warned us at the time. Until the Sacramento public fully accepts this reality, everything else being discussed related to Sac City is just noise.

Yeah, some in the teachers union want Sacramento to ante up with a parcel tax. But until Sac City fixes its dysfunctional culture, why would any voter in Sacramento consider paying a parcel tax? How dysfunctional is this culture and why? We’ll start talking about that Wednesday.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.