Education

Sacramento City teachers ask state schools chief to investigate district, superintendent

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.

The teachers union in the financially troubled Sacramento City Unified School District on Tuesday sent a letter to California’s schools chief requesting an investigation of the district and its superintendent, alleging misuse of district resources and conflict of interest.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association also requested a “comprehensive audit” of the district amid a budget crisis that began after an independent financial audit in December identified a $30 million shortfall. The district expects to run out of money by November 2019 and faces a potential takeover by the state.

The letter to California Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education asked the state to look into a number of concerns, including:

A vacation buyout program for district administrators.

Superintendent Jorge Aguilar’s part-time position at UC Merced and outside speaking engagements.

Alleged mismanagement of money and hiring at two high schools.

Oversight at New Technology High School.

In its letter, the SCTA said it raised questions about vacation buyouts for district administrators in 2017-18, and asked the state to check if staff members were paid for work they did not perform. The teachers union said the estimated cost of the buyouts was $6 million, but claimed discrepancies in figures the district provided regarding how much money was spent on the program, which gave administrators cash for accrued vacation time.

District spokesman Alex Barrios said he did not receive the union’s letter but is aware of some of the concerns raised by the SCTA. He said in an email to The Sacramento Bee that the program, which was “not unusual for a public agency,” was a money saver for the district, and any alleged discrepancies were due to differences in the time frame that employees were cashing out.

The district released two statements last year explaining the large sums of money being cashed out over time. Under the policy requiring employees to use their vacation or cash it out, it said, “the district prevents situations where employees are hoarding vacation time and then receiving large lump sum payouts when they leave.”

The SCTA also called attention to Aguilar’s part-time position at UC Merced.

Before being hired by Sacramento City Unified in July 2017, Aguilar was associate vice chancellor for educational and community partnerships at UC Merced. With the Sacramento City school board’s approval, he is still employed in a limited role as associate vice chancellor, a job that pays $171,972 per year but for which he now has a 5 percent appointment.

“When they hired him, it was with an understanding that he will bring all of his expertise here,” Barrios said. “His connection to UC Merced is to utilize the team to find post-secondary choices for our students.”

The teachers union alleges a conflict of interest for Aguilar because shortly after being hired in Sacramento, he entered the district into a “data sharing agreement” with UC Merced that pays the college $1.75 million over four years. The teachers union says it’s not clear on whose behalf he’s working.

“We will not allow meritless attacks against our Superintendent to distract us from continuing to advance work that is meeting the needs and interests of our students,” the Sacramento City Unified board said in a prepared statement. “Superintendent Aguilar’s appropriate and long-standing affiliation with the University of California should be lauded, not criticized.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who helped recruit Aguilar to the district and helped broker the most recent contract between Sacramento City Unified and the teachers union in November 2017, also affirmed his support for the superintendent. Steinberg tweeted his statement Wednesday, saying, “I’ve got your back, Jorge.”

Barrios said the data sharing agreement was approved by the board, and is a powerful tool that allows universities to send personalized packages to students with academic profiles that match their programs.

“The school board approved the contract so that our students get into higher education in the state of California,” Barrios said. “UC Merced happens to have the expertise we need to run an analysis on which colleges our students are eligible to apply to.”

The board statement said the data sharing agreement helps the district determine the success rate of students at Los Rios community colleges, Sacramento State and UC Davis, as well as UC Merced.

The union also alleged that Aguilar has violated school board policy by accepting honorarium payments for speaking engagements.

The district’s bylaws state that designated employees shall not accept any honorarium with some exceptions. Aguilar’s contract states that he “shall continue collaborating with the University of California system to bring its commitment to public service … without using work days or vacation.”

The SCTA also claimed the district refused to investigate or refer to the state Education Department its concerns about “potential misappropriation of money” at C.K. McClatchy High School athletic events. According to the letter, staff raised concerns to district officials in May 2018 about missing money from the sale of PE uniforms and sports events concessions. The union said school board policy mandates that fraud complaints must be referred to the state Education Department, but the district failed to do so.

Barrios said he was unaware of those allegations.

“In general, we always investigate complaints, and there is a process with ensuring that they are properly addressed,” Barrios said.

At Hiram Johnson High School in November 2017, the letter said, staff members started raising concerns that the principal hired two people who had worked for him at another school “by manipulating the budgeting and hiring process.” The union said the district told them the matter was resolved by a district investigation, but that the district had been “non-responsive” to its objections. The letter asked state officials for a broader investigation.

Barrios said he was unaware of this incident.

Finally, the union claimed in its letter that the district refused to investigate after teachers complained in June 2018 that a former New Technology High School principal was holding “a second, paid job while he was scheduled to be performing services for the district at the same time, and that this practice was carried out with the knowledge and consent of senior district administrative officials.” Also, the teachers’ letter alleged, the district “failed to investigate thoroughly or refer to CDE the alleged misconduct” of the same principal “who was alleged to have changed hundreds of student grades, including the transcripts of incoming students.”

According to the letter, Aguilar responded to the union on Sept. 14, 2018, saying the New Technology High principal was “no longer an employee of the District” but not saying whether district tried to recover money from him. The letter also said the union was unhappy with the district’s account of actions it took to prevent changes to student transcripts in the future.

Barrios said that according to its policies, the district is unable to respond to personnel matters.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.

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