Standoff between Sacramento City school district and teachers flares up

Sacramento City Unified school board grapples with massive budget shortfall

Parents and school officials discuss the Sacramento City Unified School District’s budget shortfall at a meeting Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. The district has until Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to submit a revised budget to the county office of education.
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Parents and school officials discuss the Sacramento City Unified School District’s budget shortfall at a meeting Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. The district has until Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to submit a revised budget to the county office of education.

Talks between teachers and the Sacramento City Unified School district aimed at resolving a severe budget crisis have broken down as a dispute between the two parties heats up.

A scheduled meeting between the Sacramento City Unified School District and Sacramento City Teachers Association Wednesday to discuss the union’s proposal to solve the budget crisis ended before it began, after district officials walked out and the teachers union called it a “setup.”

The two were scheduled to meet to discuss cost saving ideas to alleviate a pending financial meltdown, according to a statement by the district.

In December, an independent financial audit identified a $30 million shortfall in the district’s budget, and warned of a possible takeover by the state if the problem was not addressed by November 2019, when money is expected to run out.

The district and the union were scheduled to meet for an hour Wednesday afternoon to discuss their differences, but a dispute about the location of the meeting and the time the two parties arrived derailed the talks before they began.

District officials said Thursday that union officials were late to the meeting, leaving Superintendent Jorge Aguilar waiting. Aguilar left about 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, when no union officials were present, district spokesman Alex Barrios said.

Union officials said Thursday they were in the lobby of the meeting space, and entered the meeting room about 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. An argument with remaining district officials then allegedly ensued, with all parties eventually leaving without conducting the scheduled meeting.

“SCTA leaders showed up late to the designated meeting location,” read a statement from the district. “After several minutes of District staff being interrupted and talked over, our staff left the room as it was clear that such an environment would not allow for a productive discussion.”

The teachers union contested that narrative, calling it a “complete fabrication.”

David Fisher, SCTA president, said the bargaining team was at the district’s office at 3:30 and Aguilar passed them in the lobby.

“We were ready to meet fully prepared to talk about our ‘students first’ rebalancing budget, and the district inexplicably refused to meet our team,” he said. “They were treating teachers like the enemies as opposed to educators that teach the students in the district.”

The teachers’ union officials said the Wednesday dispute began when the district wanted to move the meeting to a smaller room, which couldn’t accommodate the 30 members of the bargaining team.

The district said it sent two letters prior to the meeting, asking the teachers union to reduce its bargaining team. But the day of the meeting, the teachers union wanted to use the larger meeting room, according to Fisher.

“We met with them for a year and a half with more people than what we had, so it’s not some sort of surprise to them,” Fisher said. “It’s so we have the most transparency possible with this.”

The district and the SCTA have been in sharp disagreement about the budget.

Although a meeting didn’t take place Wednesday, the district stated that it had intended to ask SCTA whether the union’s budget estimates were validated by independent financial experts, and called it “premature’” to estimate that the district can save $12 million by redirecting lifetime health benefits for teachers. The district also said it planned to question how the SCTA’s proposal to cut principals and school administrators would be applied.

According to SCTA, the district and teachers union signed an agreement in 2017 to increase teacher pay, and make cost-saving changes to the health plan. Any savings from changing the health plan would be used to lower class sizes and hire nurses and school psychologists, according to union officials. The union alleges the district is now trying to change that deal.

“When the agreement with SCTA was reached, we understood that the terms included a mutually agreeable adjustment to the salary schedule,” read a statement by the district.

According to the district, SCTA has claimed that the district agreed to pay increases. But both the SCTA and the district are in disagreement over the amount and timing of those raises. The SCTA said that it would work with the district to ensure any pay increases do not exceed the agreed-upon amounts for the 2018-19 school year and beyond

The two parties are also involved in a legal dispute over whether they previously made a deal about salary increases. In 2018, the district filed a complaint in Sacramento Superior Court requesting a declaration from the court that there is not an agreement between both parties.

On Tuesday, SCTA filed a motion to compel arbitration and move forward with the agreement it says exists.

“If there is a disagreement about the contract, then the appropriate place is through arbitration,” said John Borsos, SCTA executive director. “This is the process that the parties have agreed (on), and then the district sued us. It’s an extraordinary thing for the district to sue their teachers.”