Marcos Bretón

Let’s do the math on Sac City teachers union allegations – they add up to a nothingburger

Sacramento City Unified school board grapples with massive budget shortfall

Parents and school officials discuss the Sacramento City Unified School District’s budget shortfall at a meeting Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. The district has until Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to submit a revised budget to the county office of education.
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Parents and school officials discuss the Sacramento City Unified School District’s budget shortfall at a meeting Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. The district has until Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to submit a revised budget to the county office of education.

We should have no doubt what the strategy is by now.

The union representing teachers in the Sacramento City Unified School District wants to discredit Superintendent Jorge Aguilar. It wants to raise doubts about Aguilar’s ethics and his managerial competency.

Instead of negotiating with Aguilar to find savings within the district’s budget – savings needed to close a $35 million budget deficit and stave off insolvency and a potential state takeover – the Sacramento City Teachers Association wants to slime a guy whose only crime is inheriting an operation that was dysfunctional long before he came to town.

Last week, SCTA asked Tony Thurmond – California’s superintendent of public instruction – to investigate Aguilar. Why? It alleges “potential misallocation of resources and the potential conflict of interest by Aguilar.”

Immediately, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg issued a message that he had “(Aguilar’s) back,” which was a nice sentiment, but it didn’t prevent negative headlines from creating the insinuation that Aguilar was up to something nefarious.

Opinion

After looking into these allegations and going back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth with SCTA, the conclusion from here is that they add up to a big nothingburger.

The union alleges Aguilar may have violated policies by accepting almost $2,400 in honorarium payments when he still worked for Fresno Unified. Yeah, SCTA wants a state investigation over stuff Aguilar did when he worked in Fresno. Yeah, it wants an investigation over less than $2,400. It is going to the mat over that. Well, Aguilar didn’t take honorarium payments. He was reimbursed for out-of-pocket travel expenses.

Oh, and the union takes issue with a $6 million vacation payout that Aguilar made to employees without mentioning that this was part of his plan to stop allowing employees to bank hundreds of hours of vacation time. Why pay the money? Because, for many employees, he had to according to state law. And for others, it was pay now or pay more later. Aguilar’s predecessors allowed employees to bank the time until he made the tough choice to employ best practices that call for employees to cash out vacation time that they don’t take.

Aguilar should be praised for this, but instead, SCTA wants an investigation.

OK, but these allegations have nothing to do with what ails Sac City Unified. The only purpose they serve is to malign Aguilar. This has been an SCTA strategy for a long time, so it should come as no surprise.

Its approach is disappointing, too, because of who Aguilar is, what he does and what he shares with the kids he represents. Here, 70 percent of kids qualify for free lunches. SCTA is maligning a superintendent who came from a background as humble as the kids served in Sac City.

Aguilar is the son of Mexican farmworkers who built a distinguished academic career from nothing. His parents still tend the harvest fields in Fresno. Meanwhile, Aguilar moved his family to Sacramento, and he didn’t enroll his kids in private school. He enrolled his kids in Sac City schools.

Beyond the bad optics of targeting Aguilar, SCTA is employing a terrible strategy because the clock is ticking. If the district and teachers do not mutually agree on ways to close the $35 million budget shortfall by late spring, the state Legislature will begin preparing a financial bailout and a virtual seizure of the district. That will strip it of local control and wind up hurting every kid and every employee at Sac City Unified.

That adds up to a big problem.

So who’s at fault? The time bomb within the Sac City budget is caused by fiscal mismanagement, just as Sacramento City Teachers Association allege. But what SCTA leaves out of its talking points is that Sac City has mismanaged its budgets for years to serve SCTA’s negotiating interests.

Did you catch that? The Sacramento City Unified School District has run itself badly and spent money it didn’t have because Aguilar’s predecessors and past Sac City boards cut deals with SCTA that it couldn’t afford while ignoring the warnings they have received for decades from independent state auditors.

SCTA played a critical role in this because it has a lot of power and has wielded it effectively. That’s not a condemnation of the union, but a statement of fact. SCTA has always been more dogged and cunning than any of the Sac City superintendents and board members that it either got rid of or outlasted.

Aguilar inherited this culture when he came to Sacramento from Fresno on July 1, 2017.

He inherited a district that currently spends the most on medical benefits for employees of any public school district in the region. In 2017, just as Aguilar was arriving in Sacramento, a labor mediator approved by the district and SCTA found that Sac City paid the average employee more than $20,000 in benefits. By comparison, Elk Grove Unified paid just shy of $14,000.

Sac City has higher per pupil health care costs than Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified and Fresno Unified.

Aguilar inherited a district that devotes 91 percent of its budget to salary and benefits. That makes Sac City an outlier in the region, and this has been the case for years. In 2006, state auditors warned the district of the danger in having salaries and benefits to eat up 91 percent of their total general fund.

“This type of budget practice is neither correct nor safe and does not conform to industry standards,” wrote auditors from the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, an independent state agency tasked with assisting imperiled school districts, in 2006. “There is great need to mitigate the disparity between decreasing revenues and increasing expenditures...Unless adjustments are ongoing, they are only a temporary solution.”

Remember: This was 2006. And in the same FCMAT report, auditors found that Sac City Unified was not maintaining enough money in reserve going back to fiscal 1998-99.

Do you know where Jorge Aguilar was in 1998 when Sac City Unified was practicing unsafe budget measures? He was a Spanish teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. And do you know where Jorge Aguilar was in 2006 when Sac City Unified was expressly told by state auditors that paying 91 percent of its budget to salaries and benefits was untenable?

He was living more than 100 miles away from Sacramento as the special assistant to the chancellor of UC Merced and director for educational partnerships for the university. By that point, Aguilar was an established data whiz and a passionate believer that all kids should have the same rights to the same educational opportunities, no matter their station in life.

Aguilar is a great fit to run Sac City Unified for many reasons, but let’s not lose the point that needs to sink in: Sac City Unified was warned 13 years ago that fiscal trouble was coming.

Why? Because when 91 cents of every dollar you have goes to salary and benefits, there aren’t many places you can go to find savings but within salary and benefits. And when you offer the most expensive health care plans in the region and around the state, and you fail for more than a decade to rein in those costs, then you have what Sac City is facing now.

That adds up to insolvency.

So FCMAT did the analysis in 2006 that spelled trouble for Sac City. FCMAT did another analysis of Sac City that just went public last month. Guess what? The recommendations were initially the same. The problems – out-of-whack health care costs – are the biggest piece needed to solve their budget puzzle.

Aguilar has already done what none of his predecessors could: He has four of the five labor partners with Sac City ready to work with him to find a solution. But one was missing at the table.

What did they do last week instead of engaging with Aguilar? They asked the superintendent of schools to investigate Aguilar. So here is a warning that will be repeated often:

If SCTA refuses to negotiate, Sac City will go into insolvency. The question now is: Do the residents of Sacramento care enough to insist that all parties negotiate to save their school district? Will we all realize the problem isn’t solved by maligning Aguilar, but by doing the math that adds up to a solution?

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.

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