Judge sends Sacramento City district back to arbitration table with teachers union

A judge ordered Sacramento City Unified School District back into arbitration to settle a long-running contract dispute with the teachers union amid a budget crisis.

The decision Wednesday by Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown puts the district and the Sacramento City Teachers Association back where they were in November when planned arbitration was halted after the district filed a court motion.

The district had asked the judge to determine whether there was an agreement over how to distribute a 3.5 percent salary adjustment for early and mid-career teachers.

“It’s a clear victory,” teachers union president David Fisher said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s a shame that the district frivolously spent precious resources on attorneys rather than using those resources in our classrooms.”

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios said in a statement Thursday that the two sides are far apart in their understanding of whether the salary schedule adjustment will cost the district more money than it had agreed to. However, he said, “We respect the Court’s decision and look forward to presenting our facts in arbitration.”

The union said Thursday it has asked the arbitrator for dates and agreed to meet in early March, pending confirmation from the district.

The labor contract was brokered over a weekend in November 2017 with Mayor Darrell Steinberg as a teachers strike loomed. On a handwritten note, Steinberg helped the two sides reach a “framework agreement,” court records show.

At the time, it was lauded as balance between fiscal prudence and paying teachers fairly. But according to its court filing, the district claims the two sides could not come into an agreement on how the 3.5 percent will be distributed. The district claims that the SCTA’s proposed salary schedule adjustment would cost the district 7.1 percent, which the district said it cannot afford.

According to SCTA, the district and teachers union agreed 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.

While some of the agreement was implemented, the two sides hit an impasse on the teachers’ salary adjustment. The district said it disputed SCTA’s claim that it had agreed to the timing and amount of raises.

The SCTA says 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 district in November filed a complaint in Sacramento Superior Court requesting a declaration that there is not an agreement between both parties. Wednesday’s decision means the two sides will settle their disagreement over the salary schedule adjustment in arbitration.

The SCTA filed a grievance over the dueling interpretations of the dispute in September, and requested an expedited arbitration. Union officials said the district initially agreed, but then decided the dispute could not be arbitrated. The district argued that the initial framework deal did not result in a contract or agreement to the salary schedule adjustment.

Meanwhile, the district has been trying to fill a $35 million gap in its budget and expects to run out of cash in November. An audit by the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management Team in December concluded that the district had made numerous financial missteps and faces a potential state takeover.

The Board of Trustees are expected to meet Thursday night at 6 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Feb. 8 to correct the type of court filing made by the Sacramento City Unified School District. It was a court motion, not a lawsuit.

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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.