Education

Labor groups join to seek stronger voice as city school district tackles $24M deficit

Local unions form coalition, hope to help solve school district budget crisis

SEIU representative Ian Arnold speaks on the importance of classified employees at a press conference Thursday, September 20, 2018, announcing a collaboration between four of the five unions associated with Sacramento City Unified School District
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SEIU representative Ian Arnold speaks on the importance of classified employees at a press conference Thursday, September 20, 2018, announcing a collaboration between four of the five unions associated with Sacramento City Unified School District

Four of the five unions associated with Sacramento City Unified School District — all but the teachers union — have joined in a coalition aiming to collaborate with the district to address the “crisis” posed by a $24 million deficit, the labor groups announced Thursday in a press conference.

That deficit led the Sacramento County Board of Education to disapprove the district’s 2018-19 budget earlier this month. It’s the first time that has happened to the district.

United Professional Educators, Teamsters, Teamsters Classified Supervisors (formerly Classified Supervisors Association) and the Service Employees International Union leaders called for collaborative efforts to solve a problem that UPE Executive Director Richard Owen said was brought on by “poor financial planning.”

Representatives with the four unions expressed an interest to collaborate in talks with the district as it attempts to makes heavy cuts toward a revised budget, due to the county on Oct. 8.

“It’s really important that we’re in the same room at the same time, not listening to or watching what’s happening on social media,” said Ian Arnold, an SEIU representative.

Local labor leaders also emphasized the concepts of equity and “shared sacrifices” as inevitable budget cuts approach. Owen said he hopes the coalition represents a “new era of labor-management relations” among the unions and district.

Arnold said cuts affecting classified employees would not be sufficient.

“In the past, what’s happened is there’s been sort of chops from the top, where somebody who has never worked in a classroom says, ‘We need to get rid of all the custodians, and the kids can clean the classroom,’” Arnold said. “That was a disaster.”

Sacramento City Teachers Association Executive Director John Borsos told The Bee on Thursday that he was not aware of the coalition’s formation. But SCTA President David Fisher, in a phone interview, referred to talks of shared sacrifices as “premature.”

“We don’t want to start talking about any cuts that can start hitting the students until the district can address the administrative cost,” Fisher said. “We would hope the union would focus on administrative costs way before quote-unquote ‘sacrifices’ that can affect the students.”

SCTA last Friday sent a proposal to the district with its recommendations to fix the recently aired budget concerns. A written copy of that proposal calls the budget situation a “fiasco,” and recommends the district cut 81 full-time positions from the administrative office, which the union said would save about $16 million.

Fisher said Thursday he hopes the four-union coalition looks at the proposal and considers its recommendations.

SCTA had what Fisher called a “productive meeting” with district Chief Business Officer John Quinto on Thursday. Quinto has been in the position for less than a month.

“He has many of the same questions that we have,” Fisher said. “Most if not all of the budget was approved before he was here.”

Representatives with the other four unions attributed much of the deficit to poor budgeting practices under former Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, who served from 2009 to 2013, while defending current Superintendent Jorge Aguilar’s performance.

“I personally believe part of the problem is that the district for decades has relied on grant funding to fund ongoing programs,” Arnold said. “If the programs are worthwhile, we should find a way to put them in the budget ... Do we kill programs that are very important, because we’ve never budgeted for them, or do we find other ways to capture that money?”

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios said after Thursday’s conference that the budgeting method used the previous three years did not suffice this year.

“To be completely honest, it has been our practice that as we get one-time funds late in the budget process, those usually bail us out so that we can cover our bills for the year,” Barrios said. “And then we just kind of expect those one-time funds to come in and give us a little boost at the end of the year so we can get by not only for that year, but have enough reserves for future years.”

Barrios also said it was “very hard for us to have anticipated that the budget would be disapproved” based on its projections at the time.

Judy Farina, UPE president and principal of Matsuyama Elementary School, said “the work doesn’t go away” when there are cuts to classified employees.

“The work just gets transferred,” Farina said. “For example, we’ve only got a four-hour night custodian. I was cleaning toilets. I was locking the school up every night.”

The labor representatives gathered in front of Caroline Wenzel Elementary School on Thursday morning to make the coalition official. Owen said the four unions will meet at least once a week.

“We are certainly inviting the fifth group (SCTA) to join us,” said Allen Durie, a representative with Teamsters, during Thursday’s conference.

The county Office of Education publicly announced disapproval of Sacramento City Unified budget at a Sept. 6 school board meeting. A letter to Aguilar by county Superintendent David Gordon recommended immediate budget cuts. Under state law, the district has until Oct. 8 to file a revised budget, which must then be approved by the county by Nov. 8.

A financial adviser assigned by the county began work last week to help assess the situation and uncover possible solutions to balance the budget.

Barrios said the adviser is still in step one of a three-step process — first sorting out numbers and gaining clarity on the situation, before arriving at an exact number for, then recommending budget solutions.

Thursday night will mark the district’s first school board meeting since the announcement of the budget disapproval. The agenda includes an update on the 2018-19 adopted budget, to be presented by Quinto.

SCTA and the district reached a deal last November that narrowly averted a teacher strike, providing a total of up to 11 percent compensation increases for teachers over a three-year agreement — $4.8 million in 2016-17, $6.2 million in 2017-18 and $14 million in 2018-19.

In a letter from the county to Sacramento City Unified in December, Gordon said the county had concerns about the potential impact the labor deal could have on the district’s long-term fiscal situation.

Fisher maintained last week that compensation increases were necessary to prevent further “exodus of teachers around mid-career,” which has loomed as a crisis in recent years. An FAQ page on the Sacramento City Unified website says the November deal was “not by itself” the cause of the budget disapproval.

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