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Do the math: Teachers + health costs + insanity = we all lose

SCUSD superintendent responds to one-day teachers strike

Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar holds a press conference Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Success Academy in Meadowview in response to the one-day teacher strike underway throughout the district.
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Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar holds a press conference Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Success Academy in Meadowview in response to the one-day teacher strike underway throughout the district.

Even if you don’t live in the City of Sacramento, or if you don’t have kids in the city public school system on the verge of blowing up, what is happening here affects you too.

Why? Because the demolition of a public school system serving more than 40,000 kids in the capital of California is representative of all that is wrong in the wealthiest state in America – and what is wrong in Sacramento.

We’re talking about places filled with people who talk a great game being “progressive.” Yet two-thirds of Sac City teachers are white; a majority of the leadership of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, their union, is white, too.

Meanwhile, if the school system goes into insolvency, the primary victims will be black and brown kids who make up a majority of the district student population.

Isn’t that the way it always is in Sacramento? You have affluent Curtis Park right across the way of North Oak Park. You have the gracious Pocket neighborhood right across Interstate 5 from Meadowview. Land Park is a world away from Del Paso Heights. Kids in the upscale neighborhoods are privileged because their parents can raise funds for their schools if the district blows up. (And lest you think I’m just lecturing, I include myself in this group.)

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Or, seeing affluent Sacramento families move their kids to expensive charter or private schools wouldn’t be surprising.

But everybody else will be stuck in schools whose programs will be gutted. And we’re already talking about a district that disproportionately suspends African American students. We’re talking about a district whose elite college prep programs are already lacking in diversity, such as the Humanities and International Studies Program (HISP) at C.K. McClatchy High School.

Why are these programs lacking in diversity? Because a very small number of black and brown students qualify for HISP by the time they reach high school.

Before elaborating on these points, let’s talk about how all of this defies simple logic.

How can the City of Sacramento be booming and California be soaring at same time the Sacramento City Unified District is upside down? It’s facing a $35-million budget deficit. Unless a deal is reached at the end by the end of June, the district could run out of money in the next school year.

It would then have to be bailed out by the state, which would strip local budget control from a locally elected school board members and its hand picked superintendent.

That would hurt Sacramento’s image, damage efforts to recruit businesses to relocate here, result in the unemployment of many unionized workers and – last, but not least – hurt thousands of kids.

Remember the kids?

Everyone in this mess talks about how they love the kids. But at the heart of it all is a blood fight over entitlements for grownups. And anyone who says otherwise is exaggerating at best and lying at worst.

Any number of solutions can fix these issues. Plenty of end games are available. The problem is, every one of them runs into a sacred cow of California or Sacramento.

For example: Why, you might ask, is Sacramento City Unified so hard-pressed financially? Well, for about 20 years, the district has offered uncapped health care benefits to its teachers.

And for about the same amount of time, county and state education officials have been warning the district, saying it needed find less expensive health care options for its teachers. The district has been told over and over that these health care costs are unsustainable.

Does the district have other areas to fix? Sure, the district spends way too much on special education and isn’t reimbursed enough by the state. Because of older facilities, the district spends too much money on utilities. But health-care costs are key . As I wrote last week, the district spends $21,000 more per employee on health care than Natomas Unified.

You don’t think this is a problem? Don’t take my word for it: “The math is the math,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“The only way forward is to sit down and negotiate a fair solution to avoid receivership,” he said.

Jorge Aguilar, the still relatively new district superintendent, has been trying to get the teachers union to negotiate a new health care plan. Currently, the teachers’ plan is more generous than any other employee group in the district – including administrators.

Aguilar thinks if the teachers negotiated, the district could gain $16 million or more on health savings.

Why does he want to do this? Because he wants to avoid cutting as many programs as possible. He wants more restorative justice programs to cut down on the number of African American students suspended. He wants to have more summer school available so that kids who fall behind academically can catch up.

Such programs would have profound effects on African American and Latino students who are not ready to qualify for the districts elite college prep classes by the time they reach ninth grade.

Why should you care about this? Because these are Sacramento and California’s future workforce. They are our future leaders. If we as a community – and a state –accept that we can’t keep Sac City from going broke, then aren’t we saving that we value our entitlements more than our kids?

The problem is, we can’t even have that conversation. Why? Because John Borsos, who runs SCTA, is trying to take out Aguilar. He and others have engaged in a war of character assassination.

Doesn’t it make you queasy seeing a bunch of white SCTA leaders accusing a Latino superintendent – the son of farm workers – of being crooked?

Does that make anyone in Sacramento uncomfortable at all? If the answer is “no,” well, then we are not as cool or progressive as we think we are. This isn’t about trying to break a union or bring in charter schools or private schools. This is about trying to make Sacramento’s public schools healthy once and for all.

Yes, Sacramento is a great union town. But when ideology obstructs common sense, you have the worst of Sacramento and California. You a school district serving poor kids going broke in a rich city and state. You have people who should know better, unable to do anything but go on the attack to preach to the most strident elements of their constituencies.

One of the main failures of Sac City Unified is that in the last 25 years the district has had 12 superintendents and only one has served more than four years. Aguilar has been here for less than two. He didn’t create the financial mess that Sac City is suffering through.

But Borsos wants him out anyway.

Borsos is the one who needs to be out. Yvonne Walker and Fabrizio Sasso, who lead the Central Labor Council and are getting involved in discussions to bring this mess to an end, need to restore sanity to this process.

If this isn’t fixed, we will endure a failure of Sacramento and California and the triumph of our worst impulses and biases. It will prove that we are neither progressive or diverse in the truest sense of the word. All the people and involved – and all the people standing on the sidelines – will regret it for the rest of their lives.

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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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.


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