Education

Sac City Unified strike is set. How will it affect students, teachers and the district?

Sacramento Bee reporter, editor break down pending SCUSD strike issues

Sacramento City Unified School District faces a June deadline to balance the budget and avoid a state takeover. Teachers plan an April 11, 2019 strike.
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Sacramento City Unified School District faces a June deadline to balance the budget and avoid a state takeover. Teachers plan an April 11, 2019 strike.

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And come back to sacbee.com for continuing coverage of the strike and the board meeting Thursday night.

The strike was called. The picket line will be drawn. But the impact on more than 40,000 students in the troubled Sacramento City Unified School District remained unclear Wednesday, one day after the teachers union announced a walkout set for April 11.

While the district said all schools will be open for a regularly scheduled day, Sacramento City Teachers Association officials say their members likely will not cross the picket line.

The district is preparing for the strike by calling on emergency substitute teachers to help at Sacramento City’s 75 schools. The SCTA represents certificated substitutes in the district, and said any alternate replacements could potentially be unqualified.

“When we have unqualified people in the classrooms, who knows how many kids will be stuffed in each classroom,” said SCTA Vice President Nikki Milevsky.

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios said the district is confident that enough qualified teachers will be recruited for the strike day, and all campuses will conduct a regular school day. He said the suggestion that replacements would be unqualified was “offensive.”

“We are getting waves of teachers letting us know they will be showing up to class,” Barrios said. “We expect a lot of them won’t walk out. We are hearing a lot of confusion over what a one-day strike will accomplish.”

State takeover looms

The strike looms as the district is under extreme pressure to balance its budget by the end of June. If it cannot resolve a $35 million gap, it faces a takeover by the state.

The district has already approved a motion to lay off employees and has started eliminating programs.

Not all of the four other unions in the district have commented on the SCTA’s strike.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 2,000 district workers including bus drivers, custodians and food service workers, will meet later this week.

“We recognize and respect that the decision to strike is one of the most important and difficult steps workers must make. The seriousness of the present dispute must not be underestimated,” read a statement from the SEIU.

Richard Owen, executive director of United Professional Educators, which represents principals and administrators, said his union does not support the strike.

“We have to keep the schools open,” Owen said. “I am not sure what the strike is planning to accomplish. We need to get everyone to the negotiating table so we don’t go into receivership.”

Impact on funding

The one-day strike will likely affect the district’s state funding, which is based on each student’s daily recorded attendance. Unlike the heavy smoke from the Camp Fire last year, which led to the cancellation of some classes, strikes are not considered emergencies. Therefore, the district would lose average daily attendance funding for each absence during the strike, according to the California Department of Education.

School districts report their attendance to the state three times per year, according to the state, each time providing data for a range of time.

Sacramento City Unified officials are still calculating how much a one-day strike will cost the district.

“We know that when attendance drops by a significant amount, it hurts our finances, and our district cannot afford any more financial hardship,” Barrios said. “Anyone telling kids that not going to school is the right message is surely mistaken.”

Union officials said they selected April 11, a Thursday, so that a strike could be completed before layoff hearings begin later in the month. School ends an hour early on Thursdays, so the timing also minimizes the impact on students, union officials said.

“We hope that this is enough, so that we don’t have to strike any longer with even more impact on the district and students,” SCTA President David Fisher said.

Teachers will not be paid for the days they do not work and cannot use sick time to go on strike.

Independent charter schools whose teachers are not represented by the union will not be affected by the strike. Other charter schools in the district, like George Washington Carver School of Arts & Science, will be.

The last teachers strike in the district was in 1989. Since then, several other strikes have been scheduled but were averted, most recently in 2017.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg helped broker the current contract between the SCTA and the district as the 2017 strike loomed, and has offered to facilitate current talks, along with Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna. The Bee on Wednesday reached out to Steinberg, Serna and Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, who represents areas covered by the district. All three officials were out of the country on business and were unavailable for comment.

Strike issues

Union officials said the strike is over the district’s “failure to honor the contract and obey the law.” The union said its request is simple: It wants to meet to talk about the budget, and an agreement to redirect health plan savings to students. And if there are no viable alternatives for a state takeover, the union said it will consider reopening its contract.

Last year the union said it made an agreement with the district to identify savings by changing its health plan, under the condition that all savings would be redirected to class size reductions. The union said the district did not reaffirm its commitment to spending those savings on the students.

Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said Tuesday in a letter to the union that changes to the plan would have saved the district millions, but they did not occur. The union’s “inaction on health savings has only resulted in the hastening of the District’s financial decline and inability to remain fiscally solvent for our students and families,” Aguilar said.

“His letter is a confirmation of his betrayal,” said Fisher, the union president. “He has no desire to fulfill his commitment to teachers and students.”

The district said it is committed to working with union officials to resolve their disagreements.

“This strike is unnecessary and will only hurt students, families and employees by putting the district on the fast track to a state takeover,” read a statement from the district.

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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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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