Sacramento school district asks state to block teacher strike planned for Wednesday

Sacramento City Unified teachers announce strike date before reaching a deal four days later

The Sacramento City Teachers Association said it will strike Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, if a contract agreement can’t be reached. The teachers rallied before a school board meeting.
Up Next
The Sacramento City Teachers Association said it will strike Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, if a contract agreement can’t be reached. The teachers rallied before a school board meeting.

The Sacramento City Unified School District has asked a state labor board to block a teacher strike planned for Wednesday as tensions mount between district leaders and the 2,800-member Sacramento City Teachers Association, according to a document obtained Sunday.

If teachers stage a walkout, it would be the first strike in the city district since 1989. Teachers are seeking an array of changes that include higher pay increases, smaller class sizes, more arts and music teachers and better working conditions. District leaders say the requests would cost too much money – $65 million more over three years than they are willing to spend.

The district on Friday asked the California Public Employment Relations Board to stop the strike through an injunction. Separately, the union and district met Saturday without resolution and will return to the bargaining table Monday with a new mediator.

“It was not particularly productive,” SCTA Executive Director John Borsos said of Saturday talks. “We are more hopeful Monday will be.”

The district, in its PERB unfair practice charge, alleges that the teachers union did not participate in the bargaining process in “good faith” by calling a strike before a state-appointed arbitrator’s report was released, according to a document provided by the district. Sacramento City Unified also says the bargaining process has not yet been completed, and that the union is required to wait before calling a work stoppage.

The district says the release of the final report came after union president David Fisher announced the strike date at a Thursday rally. Borsos did not respond Sunday afternoon.

Parents and school employees are anxious as they wait to see whether more than 43,000 students will be affected Wednesday. The district hopes to keep all schools open but acknowledges some could close depending on whether emergency staffing is sufficient. The district is offering $500 per day to substitutes during the strike.

Many parents have said they will keep their kids home, some out of solidarity with teachers, others because they question the education quality in a strike situation.

But most households in the city district are low-income, and they may have fewer alternatives to find child care at the last minute. Many students also rely on schools for breakfast and lunch during the week.

A state-appointed arbitrator last week largely sided with the school district, prompting an immediate dissent from the labor group, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request.

The report by arbitrator Andrea L. Dooley appeared to do little to advance negotiations between the city’s largest district and its teachers union. SCTA President David Fisher dismissed Dooley’s findings as “virtually useless” last week at a rally to announce the Wednesday strike date.

Rather than expand a retroactive teacher pay increase for last year, Dooley eliminated that pay hike entirely in her recommendations despite the district already having offered 2.5 percent back pay, according to the state document. She suggested that teachers receive a 3.5 percent raise this year – as both sides have agreed.

However, she suggested that teachers get a guaranteed 3 percent increase next school year and an adjustment that would improve pay for mid-career educators, items that the district had not backed.

Teachers have asked for class-size reductions in fourth grade through high school, which the district says would require hiring an additional 273 full-time teachers.

Dooley did not suggest the district reduce class sizes immediately. Instead, she said both sides should work on reducing health care costs by joining a health benefit pool like one run by CalPERS, and use the savings to cut class sizes, increase prep time for teachers and hire counselors, nurses, school psychologists, program specialists and arts and music teachers.

The teachers union has seized on Dooley’s treatment of the class-size issue because she recommended contract language that would shrink K-3 classes to 24 students in 2020 – something the district already began doing in 2016. The union, in its dissent, said that showed “a failure to understand basic facts prior to making a recommendation” on the mediator’s part.

District officials have indicated that they intend to follow the recommendations of the state report, including the new possibility of rescinding the offer for a 2.5 percent retroactive pay raise for 2016-17 – a move that the union considers a big step backward because the sides previously agreed on the concept of retroactive pay.

District spokesman Alex Barrios said the fact-finding report puts more on the table than the district had previously offered. He said the district could be flexible if the union agrees to work within the recommended dollar amount.

“That’s a decision for our negotiation team,” he said. “The bottom line is we can’t be over $60 million off from each other in order to have a good faith bargaining session at this point.”

Barrios said the district can’t afford to meet the union’s demands. “We don’t have it,” he said. “If we are going to work out a deal and avoid a strike we have to come to a reality. We all support our teachers. We all love our teachers. But we have to be real.”

The district and the teachers union have been at loggerheads for over a year, and teachers are working under a contract that expired in December.

The union is pushing the district to spend down some of its $81 million in reserves and has suggested that the district is being too fiscally conservative by directing money toward future retiree health costs and pensions. Union leaders say lower salaries than in comparable districts have hurt recruitment and retention. They also charge that the district has overpaid and overhired administrators in recent years.

Sacramento City Unified maintains that its teachers receive competitive overall compensation largely because of a generous health care benefit that covers teachers and their families for free, as well as retirees with 15 years of service for life. The district also points out that it has to prepare for higher pension costs after CalSTRS and CalPERS lowered their investment return forecasts, while the lifetime health guarantee has led to a large unfunded liability.

“In 1974, Sac City Unified made a promise to provide lifetime health benefits to our teachers after retirement,” Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said in a video to community members last week. “When this promise was made, I was two years old. Owing $621 million is certainly not my fault, but it is my issue to confront.”

Dooley appeared to agree with the district that its overall compensation is competitive but suggested that both the district and union have incentive to reduce health care costs. She looked at Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified and Stockton Unified as comparable districts that compete for the same pool of teachers.

“While the district’s total compensation is competitive with other districts in the geographic region, a substantial part of the difference is attributable to generous health benefits, which the parties believe can be maintained while achieving other health benefit cost savings,” the report states. “Teachers whose salaries lag the salaries of teachers in nearby districts may consider the higher salary to be more attractive than the health benefits available, and efforts should be made to control health care while improving teachers’ salaries.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert