As state takeover looms, how many students will flee Sacramento City Unified School District?

The parents of several students in the embattled Sacramento City Unified School District told the school board during a dramatic meeting Thursday night that they may transfer their children out of the district if it goes under state control in the coming months.

The looming strike that the teachers union announced this week and the possible state takeover over the district’s $35 million budget gap prompted many parents to take to the dais and share their two minutes of concern. Some admitted they were ashamed it was their first time speaking before the board.

Sacramento City Unified approved 711 permits to leave the district this school year as of December 2018, according to data collected by the district. It’s unclear whether that number exceeded transfer request numbers as of previous Decembers.

About 300 students will leave SCUSD for Elk Grove Unified, 200 are headed for San Juan Unified, 26 for Natomas Unified and 53 plan to leave for River Delta Unified.

It is unclear why the students left; the district doesn’t collect reasons behind the requests.

Thursday night’s board meeting was parent Tara Thronson’s second meeting. Like many other parents who took to the podium, she said she attended out of concern for her children and the district. Thronson and Sawait Seyoum co-founded the parent run organization Parents United to Restore our Schools on the eve of the April 11 strike. The group is described as a space for parents to become informed and advocate for a budget solution to avoid a state takeover.

The group has already held a handful of meetings at schools, sometimes with school board members and Sacramento City Teachers Association site representatives in attendance. On their Facebook page, the group encouraged parents to attend board meetings and wear green.

Thronson and Seyoum both said they haven’t officially decided if they will leave the district if it goes insolvent, but that it is a possibility.

“Right now my family is focusing our energy on avoiding state takeover,” Thronson said. “It’s not just about my kids, it’s about the impact a state takeover would have on all families in the district.”

Some parents began identifying schooling options if they choose to enroll their students elsewhere, including neighboring districts, charter schools and even private schools.

“Our kids deserve better,” Seyoum said, but added that her priority was to help find a solution for the district and the teachers union. “We have to do all we can to bring all parties together to find a solution.”

Daniel Conway has three kids in the district, with a fourth starting soon. He serves on the Phoebe Hearst Elementary site counsel and as a volunteer. He said while he would consider leaving, he wouldn’t make the decision right away.

“If we saw the quality of our kids’ education declining we wouldn’t hesitate to go elsewhere,” Conway said. “We have to do what’s best for our kids.”

The San Juan Unified School District has open enrollment, according to spokesman Keith Reid, and takes students from neighboring districts including Sacramento City Unified.

Other district transfers, such as to Elk Grove Unified, are more complicated. Many schools in Elk Grove are packed, and cannot accept new students, according to spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton. Elk Grove Unified students sometimes attend schools in neighborhoods adjacent to theirs until seats open up.

Pinkerton said some of the district’s schools are not overcrowded, including Florin and Valley high schools, and may be able to accept Sacramento City Unified students.

Sacramento City Unified will have an update on their enrollment data in July.

In the meantime, after weeks of deliberation, a court appointed arbitrator on Thursday ruled in favor of the teachers union in its salary schedule dispute with the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The district and the Sacramento City Teachers Association entered voluntary arbitration in March, after disagreeing over a salary increase for mid-career teachers. According to the arbitrator’s ruling, the district breached its tentative agreement with the union regarding the salary schedule during the current school year.

“We look forward to working with the District to implement the arbitrator’s award immediately and hope that this decision encourages the District to honor our contract going forward,” read a statement from teachers union President David Fisher.

In a statement to The Sacramento Bee, the district said while it is disappointed with the decision, it will respect the arbitrator’s ruling.

The Sacramento Superior Court arbitration is legally binding and must be implemented immediately, according to court documents.

“The arbitrator’s decision will cost the District more than the 3.5% maximum increase we had agreed to and planned for in our budget,” read the district’s statement. “It will have negative implications on our budget situation and we are now carefully reviewing the details of the decision to assess how much our financial obligation will increase by and the impact of this decision on our current financial challenges.”

The deal was originally brokered in November 2017, by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and the union. The meeting, held at the mayor’s Greenhaven home, took place as a strike loomed. It provided a 7.5 percent salary increase for teachers with an additional 3.5 percent adjustment to mid-range salaries.

At the time, the decision was praised as a balance between fiscal prudence and paying teachers fairly.

But just weeks after the deal was signed, Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon said that the agreement would drain Sacramento City’s reserves within two years, and the district would have to propose new cuts to avoid being placed on the state’s early financial warning list.

The district said that under the contract, the increase would cost $7 million. The district claims that as implemented under the SCTA’s proposal, the adjustment would cost $14 million, which the district said it cannot afford.

The SCTA had said it would work with the district to ensure any pay increases do not exceed the agreed-upon levels for the 2018-19 school year.

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 6, 2019, to correct which schools in Elk Grove Unified School District might be able to accept Sacramento City Unified students. According to the Elk Grove District, those with capacity include Florin and Valley high schools, but do not include Monterey Trail High School.

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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.