Mayor Steinberg floats new tax for Sacramento schools as he urges teachers to stop labor fight

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg over the weekend urged teachers and administrators to settle their contract dispute to help avoid a state takeover of the Sacramento City Unified School District – and floated a districtwide parcel tax campaign to support schools as an incentive.

Steinberg made the suggestion in a letter posted Sunday on his website, in which he congratulated the Sacramento City Teachers Association for winning a court battle over its labor agreement.

A court-appointed arbitrator on Thursday ruled that the district breached its tentative agreement with the SCTA regarding an increase in mid-range teacher salaries.

The district had argued that under the contract, the adjustment would cost $7 million, but as implemented under the SCTA’s proposal the cost rose to $14 million, which the district – facing a $35 million budget gap and possible state takeover – cannot afford.

“You won the battle over the disputed contract,” Steinberg told teachers in his letter. “Congratulations.”

But, he continued: “Now that you won, it is essential that both parties get back to the table to promptly negotiate the successor contract.”

Steinberg, who helped broker the contract between district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and the teachers union in November 2017, said that the city’s “dreams and goals “ depend on a stable city school district.

“Never has there been a more important time to show grace in victory,” Steinberg said in the statement. “Continuing this fight will hurt the very kids you devote your lives to.”

The teachers union has announced plans for a second one-day strike on May 22 over a provision in the contract involving health benefits. The union claims the district is not honoring the agreement by directing savings from a less expensive health plan strictly toward reducing class sizes and hiring more health workers and counselors.

The contract expires at the end of June, and the district and teachers union have yet to identify any savings.

In his letter, Steinberg criticized the union’s rationale for striking as “essentially moot,” because no savings have been achieved.

“The vexing and maddening part of the threatened strike and impasse is that there are no savings to fight about,” he said. Even if the parties were to agree to health care savings over the remaining weeks of the contract, those savings could not be realized retroactively.

Steinberg said the union should “declare victory and move on.”

But the union on Monday did not budge from its position that “at the heart of this agreement was an enforceable promise to lower class sizes and improve services.”

“Reckless administrative spending and fiscal mismanagement does not nullify our contract and it’s unfortunate educators are having to strike to simply ensure that superintendent Aguilar and board President Ryan honor the contract and obey the law,” read a statement from the teachers union to The Sacramento Bee. “The pathway to avoiding fiscal insolvency begins when all parties to the November 2017 agreement act in good faith by honoring the contract and keeping promises to our students.”

The district, responding to Steinberg’s statement, said that its priority is avoiding a state takeover. “We need all labor partners at the bargaining table and will continue asking leaders of SCTA to commence contract negotiations,” the statement by district spokesman Alex Barrios said.

In his letter, Steinberg suggested partnering with the district, its unions and parents to seek voter approval of a parcel tax in 2020. Such a parcel tax effort was previously mentioned in 2017 contract discussions, according to the written agreement.

A parcel tax, a form of real estate tax that avoids limits set by Proposition 13 because it is not based on property value, helps fund K-12 education in California or other public facilities – often referred to as “Mello-Roos.”

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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.