In labor dispute with teachers, school district goes directly to parents

Parents at Sacramento City Unified School District opened up a seemingly urgent email from district leadership last week.

“Important update regarding next school year,” read the message in big bold letters.

A school closure? No, it was an email blaming the Sacramento City Teachers Association for the lack of a labor contract between the teachers and the district after nine months of negotiations.

The lengthy and unusual letter bluntly accused the teachers union of holding up contract negotiations.

“This adult disagreement needs to be resolved during the summer break so that it does not impact our ability to provide services to students in the next school year,” the letter reads, adding that “as parents and members of the community, you have a right to know about issues in our district.”

The letter was sent via the district’s “eConnection” email newsletter that is distributed to parents. It was also posted to the district’s Facebook page.

The union, which represents 2,400 teachers, was caught off guard. Union leaders took issue with the ominous tone and called the letter misleading.

“This is insulting to the teachers,” said Nikki Milevsky, president of the teachers association. “How dare they use Facebook and eConnection to attack teachers.”

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios defended the action, explaining that it was part of the district’s new push in being transparent. Before, such news would be posted on the district website, but not directly pushed out to parents, Barrios said.

“We have to do more to communicate to parents what’s happening and how it affects their kids,” he said. “Keeping the community in the dark ... is not very transparent.”

The tone of the district’s letter drew the scorn of several parents and teachers, who took to Facebook to criticize the district. Some said it was an attempt to smear and undermine the credibility of teachers. The post on Facebook was removed as the discussion grew increasingly uncivil, Barrios said.

Doug Elmets, a Sacramento crisis communications expert, wasn’t surprised by the backlash. “Trying to ensnare innocent kids” into the dispute would certainly backfire, he said.

“They are in for a world of hurt if they believe this is transparency,” Elmets added. “They are leveraging students who are only trying to get an education. (The district) clearly did not think through this.”

The union has put forward a series of proposals in the hopes of making Sacramento City a “destination district.” Among them: The teachers association said it seeks to ensure that all classrooms have a credentialed teacher; that class sizes are further lowered; that the number of school nurses and psychologists is increased; and that all students are able to take classes in arts, music and physical education.

The district, however, has balked at funding some of the initiatives at the same time that it gives teachers pay raises. The SCTA has repeatedly argued that in the last four years district revenues have grown by 41 percent, while its reserve fund has quadrupled to $98 million. The letter directly disputed this account, saying that “the district is not in the financial position the union claims.”

The district letter did not offer specifics about the district’s current financial condition.

“They seem to be budgeting like it’s still the recession,” said David Fisher, SCTA vice president.

Barrios said the district is “taking into consideration our debt when we develop our budget. They are not looking at it the same way.”

The letter was apparently sent with the blessing of the Sacramento City Unified School board. Jay Hansen, board president, warned about the threat of a strike if contract talks continue to stall.

“Everyone should know what is happening,” Hansen said, when asked why the district publicized the letter.

On Friday, the district followed up with another email blast with the subject line: “Following up with you.” It informed them the Public Employment Relations Board had agreed to conduct an independent review of the district’s contract offer to the teachers.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang