Opinion

Will Sac Unified kids suffer from a union ‘testosterone-fueled vendetta?’

As Sacramento’s public school district moves closer to insolvency and a potentially destructive teachers strike, a lot of misinformation is flying around seemingly meant to confuse the public.

This is not the fault of rank-and-file teachers who give of themselves every day and whose commitment to nurturing and raising good citizens is not at issue. No, the problem here is within the “leadership” of the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

We’re talking about a small handful of people who “lead” the local teachers union and who don’t actually work in classrooms but nonetheless could have a devastating effect on the critical work of teaching in classrooms.

These union leaders are attempting to create the illusion that Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar is anti-labor and is dealing nefariously with employees of the district. These union leaders have adopted a “throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see if-it-sticks” strategy in an obvious attempt to get teachers riled up enough at Aguilar to go on strike.

As sad as this sounds, and it’s very sad, we could see teachers setting a specific date for a strike within days. If that happens, and school enrollment drops as it always does in strikes, future district funding will be hurt. Because if attendance numbers are down, then school funding goes down with it.

Opinion

A strike would also push Sacramento City Unified closer to insolvency and a statewide takeover. That would be destructive to a district that teaches 40,000 kids, the City of Sacramento, and especially to a particularly vulnerable group: The 70 percent of Sac City kids who qualify for reduced and free lunches.

A statewide takeover of Sac City Unified would undoubtedly hurt programs kids need to read at grade level and achieve developmental steps to be ready for high school and beyond.

This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and if it does happen, you can blame the leaders of SCTA for the destruction that will surely follow if the district runs out of money.

We’ll get to the specific names of SCTA leaders in a moment, but first let’s be clear: The divisions threatening Sac City Unified cannot be distilled to a simple fight between management and labor.

Four of the five labor unions representing school district employees are negotiating with the district to avoid the potential insolvency. Sac City Unified has been warned by county and state education officials that if it does not close a $35 million budget deficit by the end of the current school year, it could run out of money by November.

Overlooked in this awful equation is that four of five labor unions are not only working with the district, they are working with each other.

“Each of us has said to each other that if other bargaining units want to sit in on our negotiations, they can,” said Karla Faucett, chapter president of SEIU Local 1021. Faucett’s labor group represents roughly 2,000 district employees – gardeners, custodians, painters, carpenters, bus drivers, instructional aides, special education teachers and bilingual instructors.

“This has never happened before,” she said.

Richard Owen, executive director of United Professional Educators, which represents principals and administrators in the district, said: “We all agreed it was worthwhile to cooperate if we could break through some long-held distrust.”

Alan Daurie, a Teamsters leader who represents two separate groups of employees – classified as supervisors and plant managers – explained why labor groups are willing to work with Aguilar: “This superintendent is willing to work with us as opposed to imposing his will on us.”

“(Aguilar) largely inherited structural deficits...And I don’t know that he has created any problems of his own,” Daurie said.

Together, the four labor groups who represent district employees who are not teachers have roughly 2,200 members in their combined groups. That’s almost as large as SCTA membership. Faucett, Owen and Daurie all said they have reached out to SCTA and have been rebuffed.

It’s a tricky issue because everyone supports teachers and Sacramento is a very labor friendly town. So the question the community should be asking is this: If four labor unions like Aguilar and are willing to negotiate with him, how come SCTA leaders are making noises like they are going to go on strike 18 months after the last time they threatened to go on strike?

I think many rank and file teachers don’t want to strike and absolutely don’t want the district to go into insolvency. David Fisher, an SCTA leader has told me to my face, and in emails, that he and SCTA don’t want the district to go into insolvency either.

Cool, then how come each week seems to bring a different attack on Aguilar that seems calculated to rile up teachers. The SCTA asked Tony Thurmond – California’s superintendent of public instruction – to investigate Aguilar. Why? The union alleges “potential misallocation of resources and the potential conflict of interest by Aguilar.”

They say he may have violated district policy – when he still worked in Fresno – by accepting $2,400 in honorarium. Except that he didn’t. I’ve seen the receipts. They were travel expenses.

The SCTA alleges that Aguilar is going back on the terms of a 2017 contract reached with the help of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. That contract was signed under the threat of a teachers strike. One provision of the contract called for mid-career teachers to receive an extra raise. The SCTA alleges the contract says that all teachers should get that extra raise. But that is not how that raise was reported at the time.

And last week, the SCTA alleged that the district was violating the Brown Act by unlawfully discussing budget reductions in closed session. These are not the acts of people who want to avoid insolvency. These are the acts of people who want to create discord.

These acts are in line with the professional reputation of John Borsos, the executive director of SCTA. More than a decade ago, Borsos was a key figure in a bitter labor war between different factions in SEIU. It included years of litigation and was described by one of the judges who heard one aspect of the case as a “testosterone-fueled vendetta.”

The current posture of the SCTA seems like a vendetta, even though Aguilar cannot be blamed for decades of district dysfunction.

Frankly, Borsos’ tactics are what drive some people toward private schools or charter schools.

But what about those of us who don’t think private schools are the answer? What about those of us who don’t think charter schools are the answer? What about those of us who want unionized public schools that are healthy and strong and stable?

Four out of five labor unions working with Sac City Unified think this is possible and are working toward it. State and county finance experts have warned Sac City Unified that its budget model of 91 percent of general fund expenses going toward salary and benefits is not sustainable.

Think about it: How can the district ever get ahead when 91 cents of every dollar is committed to salaries and benefits? Sac City Unified pays for the most expensive health care programs of any school district in the region.

As far back as 2003, mediators working for the district and SCTA warned that if the district didn’t cap its health care costs, that it would be in deep financial trouble.

Are the Borsos tactics a distraction from these facts and an attempt to talk about anything but Aguilar’s call to negotiate a health care plan in line with other local districts? Combined with other cuts, that would be a way to plug the district’s budget hole and avoid insolvency.

But the only labor leaders talking about this are ones who don’t represent teachers.

“I can’t believe SCTA doesn’t want this superintendent,” Faucett said. “I love my teachers. I support my teachers but they are confused because they are being told one thing and the real truth is not being explained to them...It’s so frustrating because who is going to be hurt the most are the kids.”

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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