You asked us about the Sac City Unified crisis. Here are answers to your top questions

Here’s what a state takeover would mean at Sacramento City Unified

Michael Fine from the state's financial crisis team and David Gordon from the county office of education address the Sacramento City Unified School Board on cutting costs in their district on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Sacramento.
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Michael Fine from the state's financial crisis team and David Gordon from the county office of education address the Sacramento City Unified School Board on cutting costs in their district on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Sacramento.

With a teachers strike and a possible state takeover looming for the Sacramento City Unified School District, The Sacramento Bee put out a call this week for our readers’ most pressing questions about the crisis. Dozens have responded so far through our website, Facebook and Twitter.

Here are answers to some of your top questions:

Where are we with the strike? What do the district and the union say?

The strike by the Sacramento City Teachers Association is set for Thursday, April 11. The district says it will be a normally scheduled school day. Parents can expect some teachers in the classrooms, certificated substitutes and replacements.

The teachers union, however, says it is confident that teachers won’t cross the picket line. The overwhelming majority of its 2,500 members who voted approved the strike.

Why strike for just one day, and will it be effective? Will the teachers strike again?

The district and the United Professional Educators union, which represents administrators, are asking the same question: What does a one-day strike accomplish?

The union says it kept the strike to a day to minimize the impact on students. Union officials said they hope that will be enough to get the district to meet with them and “agree to honoring the contract and obeying the law.”

There have been changes to the state receivership process. Maybe it won’t be like the Oakland situation?

Oakland Unified School District went into state receivership in 2003 – a process in which the district takes an emergency loan from the state and is taken over by the California Department of Education. Since that time, state receivership has changed. Most significantly, the administrator who takes charge of the district’s finances is appointed by the county, not the state. If a takeover happens, this will be the first time a county superintendent – in this case, Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon – will appoint the administrator.

Oakland Unified still owes the state about $30 million, which is roughly the amount Sacramento City Unified is in the red. By the time its receivership ends in 2026, Oakland will have paid tens of millions of dollars in interest on its state loan. Sacramento City Unified will faces interest payments as well.

If the school district goes into receivership, what does that do to those in positions like superintendent, and those on the board?

The new administrator appointed by Gordon would assume power and responsibilities of the governing board. The new administrator does not have to consult with the school board or the superintendent.

Over time, Gordon can replace the appointed administrator with a trustee, and the school board will slowly regain some of its powers. After at least three years, the trustee could be removed if the district has a recovery plan in place.

What will insolvency mean in real terms for students and families? What will we lose, specifically? And how will it hurt 40,000 students? Is it possible that it won’t be like the Oakland situation?

Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the country, with families from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Activists and community leaders are speaking out, saying the crisis will harm Sacramento City Unified’s most disadvantaged students first.

Officials from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-created financial adviser for school districts, said that districts strive to keep cuts away from the classroom. But cuts that affect students are inevitable, especially during a state takeover, because the administrator will prioritize balancing the budget.

Cuts to after-school programs, athletics and health centers would be likely. The district just sent layoff notices to its preschool teachers in the Head Start program, which helps single mothers go back to work by offering free or affordable care for their children.

Is it true that a change to the teachers’ health care plan could close the budget gap? What is the rationale behind refusing a new plan?

A change in the teachers’ health care plan won’t close a $35 million gap, but it would significantly help. The union says it did not refuse a new plan – a key dispute behind the upcoming strike.

The union said it went into an agreement last year with the district to identify savings from the health plan, with the condition that those savings will be used to lower class sizes. When it asked the district to reconfirm that the money would be used only for that purpose, it said, the district did not confirm.

In a recent letter to the union, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said changes to the health plan would have saved the district millions, but no changes occurred and consequently no savings were achieved. 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.

Significantly, the union has said that if there is no alternative to a state takeover, it will consider reopening the contract.

How did the budget get this bad? And how will receivership solve the budget in the long term – school closures, loans, new contracts?

The crisis didn’t come from nowhere. Gordon has been warning the district for years, long before Aguilar became superintendent. To balance its budget, the district was often relying on one-time funding – money that might not come through every year.

But some of the latest decisions were the tipping point. Aguilar and the union met in November 2017 as a strike loomed, with Steinberg facilitating the talks. The agreement they hammered out provided a 7.5 percent salary increase for teachers with an additional 3.5 percent adjustment to mid-range salaries.

Shortly afterward, Gordon told the district it needed to reduce its budget by $15 million for the 2019-20 school year – but the reductions were not made.

Teachers union representatives say Aguilar triggered the deficit by appointing more administrators, spending $3 million on an unbudgeted summer program, and spending $6 million on a vacation buyout program for district administrators, which gave them cash for their vacation time to reduce accruals.

Sacramento City Unified has not yet discussed school closures, but they have occurred in other districts that experienced state takeovers.

The district’s labor contracts will stay in place, according to FCMAT. But because the district spends 91 percent of its general funds on salaries and benefits – 6 percent more than the state average – employees could see cuts as future contracts are hammered out in negotiations. Most of the nine California school districts taken over by the state since 1990 experienced some rollbacks in salaries or benefits.

What can we do as parents/residents/stakeholders in Sacramento?

Attend school board meetings and stay informed – and keep your questions coming. The Bee will continue to report on the budget crisis and next week’s strike.

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.