Opinion

Sac Unified teachers at crisis point, part 3: Where are the answers?

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 two of three here. Last part of three:

The strike is on for Thursday, but it isn’t going to solve the problems. It’s not even the right approach.

Is this one-day strike illegal?

It sure seems that it is.

Sacramento teachers are currently under contract. They secured that contract 18 months ago by threatening to strike. Article 3.7 of the contract reads: “The Association and the District agree that differences between the parties shall be settled by peaceful means as provided in this Contract. For the duration of this Contract, the Association, in consideration of the terms and conditions provided herein, will not engage in, instigate or condone any strike or work stoppage of members of the bargaining unit.”

Opinion

The district is in arbitration with the Sacramento City Teachers Association over disputes in the contract. By definition, that means the district is cooperating and adhering to “peaceful means” of resolving differences between them and SCTA. An arbitrator is expected to rule on this issue later this month.

So what the teachers are doing by striking – even for a day – is violating the terms of their contract.

One other major point here is that strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles only happened only after all state-mandated steps had been exhausted. That is not the case here.

“The math is the math. A one-day strike will not change a $35-million deficit (the district is facing) and the real threat of state receivership,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “The only way forward is to sit down and negotiate a fair solution to avoid receivership.”

Mike Antonucci, a writer for L.A. School Report, wrote about how Sacramento’s strike is different from other strikes. He pointed out how SCTA bragged about how its tactic might affect strikes in other cities. On Wednesday, I wrote about John Borsos – the leader of SCTA – who seems more interested in waging a war than making an agreement that would benefit kids

In his story, Antonucci correctly cited how in the private sector, strikes are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board. But in the public sector, the California Public Employment Relations Board allows some strikes in cases of unfair labor practices

Is that why SCTA is alleging that the district is in violation of the contract with teachers?

Yes, but again: The district and SCTA are in arbitration. They called a one-day strike before their state-mandated remedy had been resolved.

So, what are the major issues causing teachers to strike for a day?

The two sides have two primary bones of contention (in addition to other disagreements). According to the SCTA, the district has “reneged” on giving teachers a raise included in the contract reached between teachers and the district in late 2017.

SCTA also alleges that the district is in violation of a provision of the same contract. It says that provision calls for teachers to agree to switch to a less expensive health care plan than the one they currently have. But, the SCTA says, any savings from switching health plans would have to be spent by the district on hiring nurses, counselors, psychologists and other support staff. And, the SCTA alleges, some of the savings would go toward reducing class sizes.

Is SCTA accurate in its allegations?

No, and here is why. The 2017 labor contract reached by Sac City Unified – like all contracts countywide – was vetted by the Sacramento County Office of Education. It was analyzed by Dave Gordon, the county superintendent of schools. In addition, the district also had to comply with state law and produce a legal document specifying exactly how much the teacher raises would cost the district each year.

Gordon’s financial analysis, dated Dec. 7, 2017, of how much teacher raises would cost the district was identical to the legal document ratified by the district in a public meeting in December 2017. The district and the county office of education were in agreement as to how much teacher raises would cost.

Those costs were approved at the December 2017 school board meeting. SCTA President David Fisher spoke at that meeting and he did not once say, “Hey, we’re getting short-changed on these raises.” Or “Hey, we see different numbers.”

On the contrary. In the video of the meeting, he speaks at about the two-hour-45-minute mark. Fisher said: “We would like to express our appreciation for Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, whose direct involvement was crucial to not only resolving this contract, but more importantly, to creating a climate of trust.”

Later the two sides disagreed on the dollar amounts and percentages of the raises.

On the allegation that the district “reneged” on a contract provision calling for savings in health care to be spent on hiring counselors, psychologists, nurse and reducing class sizes?

This argument has a big problem. No such binding agreement exists. If it did, its financial effects would have been presented to Gordon. He would have done an analysis as he did on the raises. They were not presented to him and he did not do an analysis.

In the 2017 contract, the part about committing health care savings to hire more SCTA was listed as a non-binding goal.

Wait, weren’t these issues resolved when SCTA and the district reached a contract agreement with the help of Steinberg?

Yes and no. A teachers strike was averted with Steinberg’s help and that was good. But the contract was done in secret where only Steinberg and the two parties were present.

Many provisions were written into the document by Steinberg in long hand. The document can be confusing to read and it’s definitely not specific enough. If the district and SCTA trusted each other, we would have no problem, but Sacramento City Unified has been dysfunctional for at least 20 years and longer.

So even though there was an “agreement,” SCTA now is interpreting that agreement differently than the district.

On the raises, the district budgeted for a specific amount, submitted that amount to Gordon for review, approved that amount in public, and followed state law by citing that amount in legal documents. What isn’t in dispute is that we’re talking about a series of raises to teachers, some retroactive.

The pay increase schedule called for a 2.5 percent raise for teachers in fiscal year 2016-17 that raised what the district paid in total compensation by $4.8 million. Then another 2.5 percent raise in fiscal year 2017-18 raised total compensation costs for the district by $6.1 million from what it paid before the deal.

Fiscal year 2018-19 called for another 2.5 raise for everyone, and an additional 3.5 percent raise for “mid-career teachers.” These raises would have raised compensation costs to $14 million over what the district used to pay before the deal.

Gordon warned district officials that they would have to make deep cuts to pay for the teaches raises. But Gordon’s warnings received little attention.

Remember that last point – that the district would have to cut programs for kids to pay for teacher raises – because it will come up again.

How far apart are the district and SCTA on what those raises would actually cost?

Pretty far. The dispute is over the 3.5 percent raise.

The district hired a certified public accountant to analyze how SCTA interpreted the 3.5 raise. According to the CPA, the SCTA interpretation of the raise essentially doubled its size to 7.1 percent. It’s a difference of $7 million more the district would have to pay. A point to remember: It’s a $35-million budget deficit that the district is facing and SCTA is going to war over $7 million.

What about SCTA allegations that the district is bloated and incompetent?

The allegation that Sac City Unified has bloated administration costs is not supported by data compiled by the California Department of Education. According to CDE, Sac City Unified has low administration overhead compared to other districts in the region. The countywide average in administration costs is 5.7 percent of its operating budget. Sac City Unified is in the 4 percent range, which is lower than Elk Grove Unified, Twin Rivers Unified, Folsom-Cordova Unified and Natomas Unified.

As for the claim by SCTA that the school district is incompetent in managing its finances? Well, the district was warned by Gordon that it really couldn’t afford the raises it was giving teachers. So in a real sense, the district is in financial trouble now for giving teachers the raises they wanted. I wrote about that on Tuesday, about how the public wanted teachers to get raises but didn’t pay attention to warnings by county education officials that raises would have to come with made major budget cuts.

So essentially, is SCTA is saying this to the district: You’re incompetent for giving us what we wanted!

What does the superintendent propose to solve this?

He proposes having all employees – including teachers and administrators – in the same health care pool. Currently, SCTA members have the most generous health care plan of any employees – including administrators.

SCTA members can choose between Kaiser and Health Net, which is the most expensive health care plan the district offers when employees use it for themselves and their families. Per their collective bargaining agreement, only teachers have access to Health Net.

The district covers these costs for family coverage for more than 550 SCTA members. The cost of each of those plans is more than $34,000.

That’s almost $13,000 more per employee than the next most expensive health care plan paid to some San Juan Unified employees, Sac City Unified records show. It’s $21,000 more than health care plans at Natomas Unified. Other school districts such as San Juan and Natomas put a cap on their health costs, but Sac City Unified does not for its teachers.

Instead of asking Sacramento residents for a parcel tax as Los Angeles Unified is proposing or gutting programs for kids as Oakland schools are doing, Aguilar thinks Sacramento can rein in its health care costs. If the district did that, Aguilar believes the district would be in a stronger position to ask taxpayers for help later.

How has SCTA responded?

Nikki Millevsky – an SCTA leader – said on KCRA the district “deserved competent leadership.” And at the Thursday meeting, after district staff became emotional describing the painful cuts the district would have to make, some teachers followed up those comments by telling district board members to “keep their promises” to teachers.

Do SCTA leaders care more about their benefits and salaries than programs for kids?

Not to answer a question with a question but: What do you think?

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.
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