Education

Sports, gifted programs could face cuts in Sac City Unified budget crisis, board told

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.

Emotions ran high at the Sacramento City Unified school board meeting Thursday night as members heard that key programs such as sports and Gifted and Talented Education could be cut if the district fails to close a $35 million budget gap.

Sacramento City Unified faces a June deadline to balance its budget and avoid a state takeover. Adding to the pressure, its teachers union plans to strike April 11.

Before the presentations Thursday night, district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar told the audience they would likely hear emotional comments from leaders who fear their programs will soon be cut.

Representatives of a dozen programs, including the Gifted and Talented Education program, Student Support Centers and the district-wide athletics department, spoke about their impact on students.

Greg Purcell, coordinator for the athletics department, called the district’s sports program a tremendous value that serves more than 22,000 students.

In the last school year, the program saw significant growth. Many families, he said, cannot afford the “pay to play” club sports offered in the community. Families rely heavily on the district to provide an outlet for students to discover their talents, develop teamwork, and learn the value of health and fitness, he said.

Victoria Flores, who helps run Student Support services, said the centers have helped prevent more than 200 suicides by providing mental health services and drug and alcohol counseling.

“Some caring professional knew how to get through to them,” Flores said.

While district officials made it clear the presentations were only informative and did not indicate cuts to the 12 programs, some representatives and board members fought back tears at the idea that a budget crisis and potential state takeover could cause the programs to suffer or disappear.

“I feel sick,” said board member Lisa Murawski. “I want to emphasize to the community that we have a lot of skin in the game. I want our community to know we take all of this seriously.”

During public comment, Sacramento resident Troy Flint, whose daughter is in a parent-participation preschool, compared the presentations to begging for a public education.

“This is tragic,” Flint said. “We are competing against each other, and the programs are competing against each other.”

Board member Leticia Garcia called the conversation surrounding the presentations very difficult.

“I’ve lost many nights of sleep, and shed many tears,” said board President Jessie Ryan. “$35 million in cuts means we are impacting some of our most vulnerable students.”

Later in the meeting, district officials announced to the board that Sacramento City Unified will run out of cash in spring 2020 – not in November as announced in previous months.

They reported that Mike Fine, chief executive of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, told officials cash would run out in April 2020.

But district officials noted that the deadline to cut $35 million remains June 20. If the district cannot balance its budget by then, it is on track for a state takeover, regardless of any extra months of cash flow.

On Thursday, the district said reducing employee health care costs is critical to avoid program cuts.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association and the district met last year to identify savings from the health plan but did not reach an agreement. The teachers union said the district wouldn’t reconfirm that the money saved would be used to lower class sizes; the district said millions could be saved but were not because of the union’s inaction. The dispute was a key issue that prompted the teachers strike scheduled for April 11.

In a statement Friday, the teachers union blasted the district’s presentation. “In 2017, before there was any mention of a state takeover, the District was directed to make $15.6 million in costs reductions to balance its budget,” the statement said. “... Sixteen months later, the District still has not complied with that directive.”

The union’s statement said cuts should be made by “chopping at the top.”

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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