Opinion

The Sacramento teachers union won the raises it wanted. Who loses? The kids.

Sacramento teachers announce date of new one-day strike

David Fisher of the Sacramento City Teachers Association announced Tuesday, April 30, 2019, that Sacramento Unified School District teachers will hold their second one-day strike on May 22.
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David Fisher of the Sacramento City Teachers Association announced Tuesday, April 30, 2019, that Sacramento Unified School District teachers will hold their second one-day strike on May 22.

The union for Sacramento’s public school teachers won big last week – really big. Unfortunately, this big win will come at the expense of Sacramento school kids.

Programs for kids such as music and sports and many others will be gutted to pay for raises and other labor disputes between the teachers union and the district.

First, the news: On Thursday, the Sacramento City Teachers Association got a court-ordered arbitrator to agree with them that the 11 percent raises they achieved in 2017 will actually pencil out to 14 percent raises for some teachers. This is because SCTA negotiators John Borsos, David Fisher and Nikki Milevsky outmaneuvered the school district in the 2017 salary negotiations and got away with it.

What was the dispute? The SCTA and the Sacramento City Unified School District were in court-ordered arbitration over one piece of an overall package of raises brokered by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg in November of 2017 to avoid a teachers strike.

That one piece was a 3.5 percent raise the district approved to go to “mid career teachers.” The district said it could absolutely not afford for those raises to be higher than 3.5 percent. But Borsos, Fisher and Milevski presented salary schedules that will cost the district 3.5 percent raises in the current fiscal year but no less than 7 percent after that.

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Do the math: Each percentage point basically costs the district $2 million. If you budget 3.5 percent but then you are mandated to pay 7 percent, that basically doubles your costs. The district thought it would pay roughly $7 million for those mid career raises in the contract they ratified in 2017 but will now pay roughly $14 million, district officials said.

How did Borsos, Fisher and Milevski get such a costly discrepancy past the district? The arbitrator said the district simply didn’t challenge or object to SCTA in a timely manner.

The district has subsequently fired its chief budget officer and reassigned other members of the negotiation team, but the damage was done.

The district is facing insolvency if it can’t close a $35 million budget deficit. The district is metaphorically on death’s door right now. It will be taken over by the state in the next fiscal year if this deficit isn’t closed.

That deficit will now only grow now because of the teachers union arbitration win announced on Thursday by the American Arbitration Association.

As of March, district officials had identified roughly $7 million in cuts of positions not subject to collective bargaining with SCTA. Some of these cuts included administration positions.

SCTA members are prone to label the district the “administration” in evil terms to suit their negotiating posture.

In this case, here are some administration cuts the district is poised to make:

The only visual and performing arts coordinator in the district.

The only multilingual literacy coordinator in the district, to be eliminated despite that nearly 40 percent of district kids are Latino.

The only science coordinator who supports teachers with new science standards.

Reducing to a bare minimum coordinators for social and emotional learning programs.

Those are the programs that deal with kids who suffer trauma in their lives. In a district with 70 percent of kids qualifying for reduced and free lunches, and with Latino and African American kids making up the majority of district students, these are deeply consequential cuts.

Jessie Ryan, the president of the Sacramento City Unified board, said that these cuts that the district identified had roughly gotten the deficit down to $28 million. But the enhanced raises teachers were granted basically put that deficit right back at $35 million.

Now some district music, or some athletic, programs may have to go.

And here is the irony: At Thursday’s school board meeting, Milevsky criticized school board members for considering such cuts. Also at that Thursday’s meeting, some parents and teachers focused their anger on Milevsky and other SCTA members for their scorched earth but highly successful tactics.

Why? Because these cuts must be made to prevent the district from going into insolvency and they must be made to pay for giving the teachers what they wanted.

So why would Milevsky be excoriating board members for making cuts that are necessary because her negotiating got her what she and other SCTA members wanted?

Growing numbers of people around town – with insolvency and a statewide takeover of the district hanging in the air – are now incredulously asking this ignorant question: “Why did the district give the teachers those raises?”

If you’re saying those words today, then where have you been? Were you hiding under a rock in 2017?

The public in Sacramento rallied around the teachers when they demanded their raises and threatened to strike if they didn’t get them then. The public demanded the teachers have those raises because teachers are wonderful and we can’t pay them enough for the work they do.

It’s not wrong for any of us to feel that way. It’s not wrong to support our teachers. But the public in Sacramento – and across California – is completely misguided in ignoring how the district will have to pay for those raises.

Think of it this way: We all have a budget at home. We all have income and debts. What happens when our debts outstrip our income? We either make cuts or we default.

In our lives, this process is easy to understand. But logic and and reason play no role in public school education funding in Sacramento or California.

But public ignorance has led to Sac City to giving teachers the raises they wanted in 2017 without acknowledging that deep cuts must be made to pay for them. Now we have public hypocrisy: Blaming a school board and a superintendent for giving teachers and their advocates what teachers demanded.

Borsos, Fisher and Milevsky understand this culture very well and have played it to their advantage time and again. Part of their strategy is to blame “district incompetence” for the deep cuts that will follow their big wins against the district.

These three also know how much we love our teachers so they know that the community default is to blame “administration” for the cuts.

You have to hand them this: They have done a great job for their members.

And up until now, the community has not connected their big wins to deep cuts to programs for kids. Is that all their fault? No. That’s our fault too, as a community.

Sacramento has been on the sidelines as its public schools, which educate more than 40,000, slowly implode.

Instead of choosing sides between teachers and the administration in a highly successful strategy orchestrated by SCTA, how about standing up for kids?

The SCTA win over the district gets all teachers in Sacramento 11 percent raises. And it gets 14 percent raises for some teachers. A 14 percent raise is higher than teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland recently secured.

And yet SCTA has planned another one-day strike on May 22.

Why? Because of another contested point in the contract that Steinberg brokered in 2017: That teachers would accept going into a larger employee pool for their health care plans but that any savings the district achieved through this would go to hiring more SCTA members.

The district thinks it can save at least $11 million and maybe more if more than 2,000 SCTA members agree to go into health care pool with workers from the four non-teacher labor unions whose employees work at the district. If all the employees, including SCTA members, were in one health care pool, it would drive down costs to the district.

If savings were achieved, that means that fewer cuts to programs for kids would have to be made. But SCTA members insist that the district “honor the contract” by spending these savings on more hires. If you spend the savings on more hires, you make more cuts. You make more cuts, more kids get hurt.

People look at district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar every day and ask him why the district is in such bad shape. Well, Aguilar will say, the district is trying to achieve savings through its health care costs. But it won’t happen if SCTA insists that the savings go to it.

Meanwhile, they got the raises they wanted and they are gong to strike on May 22. And big programs cuts are coming. Sacramento, how is that good for kids?

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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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