As Sacramento teacher strike approaches, a key negotiator isn’t involved

Sacramento City Unified School District teachers are planning their first strike in 30 years Thursday, and the man who brokered a last-minute deal to avoid a strike 18 months ago is not involved this time around.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who hosted key negotiations between district and union officials at his Greenhaven home two days before a planned strike in November 2017, offered his help again. But the mayor has remained on the sideline, after his defense of school district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar upset the Sacramento City Teachers Association, the union representing roughly 2,500 educators in the district, the mayor said Monday.

The mayor said union leadership is upset with him because he issued a statement defending Aguilar after the union called for a state investigation of Aguilar and the district in February.

“I didn’t think (the union’s call for an investigation) helped the situation in any way,” Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee on Monday. “I’ve always had a good relationship with the teachers and labor movement, I’ve been a friend of organized labor for a long time, but fair is fair and I did not think it was productive or fair to attack the superintendent.”

Sacramento City Teachers Association President David Fisher said Steinberg has not been asked to be a part of the negotiations this time around because both sides have agreed to use a state-appointed mediator.

Teachers voted Friday to approve a one-day strike set for Thursday, claiming the administration is not honoring the terms of the contract, such as using the savings from a lower quality health plan strictly toward improving student services. The district, which faces a $35 million budget gap, is under the threat of a state takeover if the district can’t pass a balanced budget by the end of June.

The union believes the district has other options it could use before a state takeover would occur, Fisher said.

Steinberg agrees with the district administration on one major issue – health plan savings should be used for addressing the $35 million deficit to avoid a state takeover, he said.

The union believes the deal Steinberg brokered in 2017 stipulated the health plan savings would be used to improve school services, not to put toward the deficit, Steinberg said.

“The intent was to use health benefit savings to try to improve the schools. (Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools) Dave Gordon intervened after that and said you’ve got a major math problem here, and so the circumstances changed,” Steinberg said. “Ultimately I believe those health benefit savings should and can go to improving the schools – decreasing class sizes, increased counselors, increased librarians, more art – but not until the deficit is addressed.”

Steinberg said he did not know how long that would take.

“However long it’s going to take to find other efficiencies,” Steinberg said. “However long it’s going to take, for example, to really reduce the cost curve around special education. You look at the numbers and special education is driving a significant part of the deficit.”

Steinberg urged the two sides to sit down again, and offered his help.

Both sides met for mediation Monday, where union officials offered to cancel their strike if the district agreed to put health plan savings toward improving student services, and rescind planned layoffs — an offer the district rejected, Fisher said.

“Our ratio for class sizes, number of counselors and school nurses are way out of whack with surrounding districts,” Fisher said. “We (agreed) we would not put the district in to any sort of financial instability, we would find these savings by looking for different health care options but all those savings go toward the students. For them to backtrack on this, it’s more than just breaking a promise to the teachers, it’s breaking (Aguilar’s) promise to the students.”

District spokesman Alex Barrios said the district believes the strike is unnecessary.

“There are processes in place to resolve these disagreements without a strike,” Barrios said. “The strike is not necessary. It will achieve nothing other than create more discord between the teachers’ union and district at a time we need to be working together to avoid state takeover.”

Schools will remain open Thursday and regular attendance monitoring will be in place, Barrios said.

It’s unclear if the two sides will meet again this week for mediation. A date has not been set, Fisher said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story attributed statements to Sacramento City Teachers Association Executive Director John Borsos. The statements were made by Sacramento City Teachers Association President David Fisher.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.