District calls for ‘cease-fire’ after Sacramento City Unified teachers stage one-day strike

More than 2,000 teachers across the Sacramento City Unified School District walked picket lines Thursday morning for the first time in 30 years, staging a one-day strike alleging unfair labor practices by the district.

As the strike concluded, school board President Jessie Ryan called for a “cease-fire” – changing course from the district’s original plan to file its own unfair labor practices claim with the state, according to a district statement.

“Teachers are the heartbeat of our schools and we need them back in the classroom,” Ryan said in the statement. “We hear their message that without a solution more disagreement and unrest is likely. While we hear them, we also need them to hear us so that together we can solve this fiscal crisis and unite to save our schools with smart solutions.”

Sacramento City Teachers Association officials said they had not seen Ryan’s call for a cease-fire, sent in an email news release, but said they hope it means the district is prepared to honor the contract.

“That would be a tremendous expression of good faith and a significant step forward,” the teachers union said in a statement.

The strike adds to the extreme pressure faced by Sacramento City Unified, which is under the threat of state takeover as it attempts to close a $35 million budget gap.

The union said 98 percent of its members joined the strike at the district’s 75 school sites.

In a statement Thursday morning, the teachers union said it was forced to strike because the district was not honoring provisions in its contract that would reduce class sizes and improve student services.

“SCUSD officials simply need to honor the contract and obey the law,” SCTA President David Fisher said in a statement.

Rosa Parks Elementary School teacher John Brindley greeted his sixth-grade students with fist bumps as they walked onto campus Thursday morning, but remained out front with a protest sign rather than join them in the classroom.

“It’s important to stand up for what you believe in. That’s what we’ve been saying to our students,” said Brindley, who has been employed by the district since 2003. “If something is unequal or you think that the things you’ve been told have not been honored, you need to stand up for yourself and make sure that people honor their word.”

Government teacher Lori Jablonski accompanied more than 100 of her colleagues on the picket line at C.K. McClatchy High School, where students were sent to the gymnasium and auditorium to watch movies under the supervision of administration and security rather than attend class.

The district had said that Thursday would be a regular school day for its 42,000 students, with classes scheduled and staffed.

“We have extremely large class sizes,” Jablonski said. “It’s about a 35-to-1 ratio, and that’s standard here. We’ve always been on edge.”

Teachers later staged a large rally at the district’s office, the Serna Center, where they were supported by families, and members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles and Oakland Educators, who were on strike earlier this year to ask for raises and smaller class sizes.

L.A. and Oakland union members said, like Sacramento teachers, they are waiting for their contracts to be implemented.

Teachers from various Sacramento schools changed popular song lyrics to “you, teachers, are my sunshine, my only sunshine” and “lean on me” as teachers erupted in cheers.

“This is extraordinary we have to be here 16 months later just to get the district and superintendent to keep their promise,” SCTA President David Fisher said.

The district Thursday afternoon was still tallying how many students, teachers and substitutes showed up at campuses during the strike.

The strike stems from allegations by the teachers union that the district is not honoring its 2017 agreement, including directing health-plan savings strictly toward reducing class sizes and funding more health workers and counselors. The union says the district did not reconfirm those funding allocations.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg — who helped broker the 2017 contract — and district administrators believe the millions in potential health plan savings should go toward alleviating Sacramento City Unified’s $35 million deficit before improving student services. A new health plan has not been agreed upon.

A mediation session Monday between district leaders and the union was unsuccessful, officials said. At a press conference at Success Academy in Meadowview on Thursday morning, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar acknowledged that tensions were running high throughout the district and the city.

“Today we will focus on keeping our schools open, that we provide all the services that our students and their families deserve,” Aguilar said. “But I look forward to tomorrow, to making sure we begin the process of figuring out how we are going to come together, to make sure we put ourselves in the position where we can achieve long term viable fiscal sustainability.”

Phoebe Austin of the newly founded Save Sac Schools organization, which advocates preventing fiscal insolvency for the district, said their goal is bring both parties to the table.

“I think grand gestures are made with emotion,” Austin said of the strike. “But that can’t stop the process to get the parties willing to come to the table.”

By late afternoon, the district released a statement to the union saying they spent the day visiting various schools and teachers.

“The message we heard from our community was clear — they do not want to be caught in the middle of a fight between leaders of the SCTA and District,” the statement read. “While we had originally planned to file an unfair labor practice charge against SCTA challenging the legality of today’s strike, we have chosen not to file that charge today. Instead we will focus on working together with a coalition of labor, business, community and elected officials to avoid a state takeover and address our budget challenges.”

The last teacher strike in the district was Sept. 5, 1989, when more than 1,300 teachers and several hundred other certificated workers walked off their jobs on the first day of school to demand higher wages.

The district has until June 20 to balance its budget or face a state takeover.

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.