Sac Unified teachers at crisis point, part 2: A culture of dysfunction

Families brace for teachers’ strike heading to Sacramento City Unified Thursday

Families of students at Sacramento city schools talk about how they feel about a one-day strike set for Thursday, April 11, 2019, by the Sacramento City Teachers Association , which alleges the district has engaged in unfair labor practices.
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Families of students at Sacramento city schools talk about how they feel about a one-day strike set for Thursday, April 11, 2019, by the Sacramento City Teachers Association , which alleges the district has engaged in unfair labor practices.

Teachers at the Sacramento City Unified School District are striking for one day, on April 11. Columnist Marcos Bretón breaks down the issues. Part one of three here.  Part three of three here. Part two of three:

Laughter is not the best medicine for solving the budget issues that face Sacramento schools, not with a strike coming and insolvency on the horizon. But that’s some of what we are seeing right now. Let’s work through what that means.

How dysfunctional is the culture at the Sacramento City Unified School District?

Well, the leaders of the teachers union – the Sacramento City Teachers Association – laughed and joked during a video to its members about going on strike for a day on Thursday. The video was posted on the SCTA Facebook page on Monday evening.

A few noteworthy points to consider: Even a one-day strike is incredibly disruptive to the lives of more than 40,000 kids being taught in the district. Attendance is hurt during strikes and when attendance goes down, state funding for the school district goes down with it.


In the video, David Fisher – President of SCTA – suggests that his group is the only party “in the room” trying to hammer out a deal that would avert a one day strike. If this were true, and it’s not, this would have dire consequences because Sacramento’s public school district is facing insolvency.

Sac City is up against a $35-million deficit and will run out of money at the end of this year if the SCTA and the teachers don’t plug that gaping budget hole.

Here is why it’s misleading and potentially dangerous for Fisher to suggest that Superintendent Jorge Aguilar is not “in the room” on critical negotiations to avoid a strike.. First, Fisher knows very well that the meetings between SCTA and the district are being run by state mediators. Those mediators have had the parties sign a confidentiality agreement not to discuss the meetings.

Fisher may be violating the spirit of that confidentiality agreement by suggesting that the district is not the “in the room” to negotiate with them. This is false on two counts.

First, the state mediators are conducting shuttled mediation. That means that the mediator keeps the parties in separate rooms by design.

Second, I have confirmed that Aguilar and a team of negotiators from the district were, in fact, participating in this shuttled mediation. And four of the other unions like Aguilar and want to make a deal.

Where did the meeting take place? At the headquarters of SCTA. Aguilar and his team were there on Monday. And they were there on March 28.

So when Fisher says the district was “not in the room,” he is telling what some would call a whopper. Others might say he was lying.

That’s objectionable enough, but here is a question that teachers, parents and community members should be asking: Why would Fisher and his crew be laughing and joking at the prospect of a strike? How is that funny on any level?

Sac City Unified is a district in which 70 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. A majority of the kids are racial or ethnic minorities. It’s funny to disrupt the lives of those kids? And their parents? Really?

But shouldn’t we support our teachers?

Of course we should. But we need to understand a nuance here.

The primary impediment to avoiding work stoppages and bankruptcy is not the teachers.

The primary impediment is the leaders of the teachers union.

SCTA is led by John Borsos who has a terrible reputation in labor circles. Borsos is not like other local labor leaders such as Yvonne Walker of SEIU Local 1000. Locally, Walker has been a leader in the fight for fair wages for state workers in Sacramento.

She is a brilliant negotiator and organizer and she is as tough as they come. Good luck to any politician who walks into the room with her unprepared.

But Walker also cares about her community. She is a good person, a kind person, a decent person. She can reach tough deals without trying to destroy people on the other side.

Fabrizio Sasso, Executive Director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, is another example of a tough labor leader who gets deals done and cares about his community.

But that isn’t the M.O. of Borsos. He’s all about trying to demean and belittle people.

Jay Hansen, a former Sac City board member, said the district had to implement anti-bullying rules in negotiations because Borsos would treat district negotiators in ways that would get students in big trouble if they behaved as badly on school campuses.

“He would yell at people, make fun of them,” Hansen said. “He would try to intimidate people physically.”

Hansen said Borsos would apply these tactics to men and women.

After being drummed out of SEIU, being sued and filing for bankruptcy, Borsos somehow landed with SCTA. His stated philosophy is that unions have to be “militant” following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that public employees do not have to pay union dues.

It was a terrible decision by a conservative court but it could have a devastating affect on Sac City Unified if Borsos’ scorched earth tactics push the district into insolvency.

“A strike, more vitriol and more fighting only hurts kids and what should be a common cause: To fix the district’s finances and to begin investing in our schools again as soon as possible,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in response to Sac City’s dysfunction and the tactics of Borsos.

How are Borsos’ tactics playing out?

Last week, Sac City board members were inundated with phone calls by angry parents. They quickly realized why: SCTA members were passing out misleading leaflets about the district and encouraging parents to call board members. They included their private cell phone numbers on the leaflets.

“It was the craft work of John Borsos,” said Christina Pritchett, a school board member. “I’ve never seen a district so dysfunctional with its union.”

Pritchett said she received dozens of calls that typically began with an angry parent fuming at her.

“Most parents have little relation to the school board,” Pritchett said. “They just want to support their teachers.”

On Tuesday, I wrote about this phenomenon – how parents pushed for teachers to get a pay raise in 2017 but then didn’t pay attention when county school officials told the district that they couldn’t afford the raises.

Teachers are supported, and they should be. The district and the SCTA should be able to work together to close the budget deficit and avoid insolvency given that everyone will lose if Sac City goes bankrupt.

This shouldn’t be this hard, but it is because Borsos and other SCTA “leaders” are calling for strikes and somehow thinking it’s funny when it’s not.

Take a look at the video again. You see that room full of people? That is the SCTA bargaining team – a whole room full of people? How are you supposed to work out a deal with a room full of people? Most groups, labor or otherwise, have small teams in the room to work deals.

Where else does this happen in the region? It doesn’t. The clock is ticking. If the school district does not close its budget deficit by the end of the school year, the district will likely run out of money in the next school year. Then we’ll have a state bailout, layoffs, programs gutted, pink slips and a 10-year process for Sac City to get out of virtual receivership.

How is any of that funny?

It’s not . And this won’t get fixed as long as Borsos is calling the shots.

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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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.