Opinion

Give the mayor credit, he’s willing to dive into the school budget cesspool

After successfully campaigning to cajole Sacramento into passing a sales tax increase in 2018, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has now floated the idea of a parcel tax for city voters to consider in 2020 – one to ease the financial burden of the nearly broke Sacramento City Unified School District.

The former state senate leader turned mayor is often labeled as being the guy who never met a tax he didn’t like. Steinberg also gets labeled as being the guy who wants to be all things to all people.

But in the case of being willing to use his political capital to help solve an issue for which he is not directly responsible – the possible insolvency of SCUSD – Steinberg has one big mark in his favor: He is willing to step up and help in politically difficult situations when others don’t.

Even though Sac Unified budget issue only affects one school district in the City of Sacramento, the crisis affects the entire region in some way. If the district can’t close a $35-million budget deficit soon, the business of Sacramento is hurt badly because failing schools are a major turnoff for investors.

This goes right to the heart of this question: Just how progressive is Sacramento? What will that answer be if a district with a majority black and Latino students – and with 70 percent of kids qualifying for reduced or free lunches – fails when the state and city are both prospering?

Opinion

The answer will be that Sacramento is neither progressive. Nor functional.

Many influential, elected officials have an interest here and could speak up – and take a risk. But they haven’t.

A list of the missing in action is a who’s who in Sacramento politics: Congresswoman Doris Matsui. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty. State Sen. Richard Pan. Or, given the ethnic and racial backgrounds of the city, where are the three African American city councilmen: Rick Jennings, Larry Carr and Allen Warren? Where is the only Latino councilman, Eric Guerra?

County Supervisor Phil Serna wrote an open letter offering to mediate between district officials and the teachers union but he said he was basically rebuffed by the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

McCarty is a major player in education funding in California but all he has done is order an audit of SCUSD. Great. The district has been audited nonstop for a a decade.

We know why the district is in financial trouble: It spends 91 cents of every dollar on salary and benefits, the highest in the region. It has uncapped health care obligations and offers the most costly health care plans to teachers in the region by a wide margin.

This has been the case for more than a decade. The district has been warned by state and county auditors that these practices are unsustainable.

Even in good financial times, it never catches up because so much of its money goes to salary and benefits and its health care costs outstrip state funding.

The district doesn’t need another audit. It needs money. It needs to put a cap on its health care costs. It needs to get closer to the industry standard of spending 85 or so cents of every dollar on salary and benefits. It needs labor peace. It needs a superintendent to stick around for more than a couple of strife-filled years before getting fed up and leaving.

This is what Elk Grove Unified has. That district has had only six superintendents in the last 60 years and is thriving, said Dave Gordon – who ran Elk Grove Unified before becoming the superintendent of county schools. At a community event last week, Gordon said the teachers union in Elk Grove works cooperatively with the district while representing its members well.

Why can’t that happen in Sacramento, which has had 12 superintendents in 25 years? Because there is no labor peace. Because the SCTA is in a constant, never-ending state of warfare with the district. Because SCUSD is the district where school board members get threatened by SCTA members who share the personal cell phone numbers and bombard them if they don’t vote as SCTA wants them to vote.

Because of these reasons and many others, the politicos are standing on the sidelines as SCUSD comes close to running out of money. It’s a mess. It’s political dynamite. We all love our teachers. But within SCUSD, if you say anything other than the mantra repeated by the most hard core SCTA members, you’re labeled as someone who “hates teachers.”

In Sacramento, that’s the kind of problem that scares politicians away – except Steinberg.

Is a parcel tax the answer here? It’s too early to answer that question, but know this: SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar has not asked for one.

Aguilar wants to correct how the district spends 91 cents out of every dollar on salaries and benefits and bring those costs in line with industry standards. Aguilar wants to have SCTA members in a larger health care pool so that he can drive down his annual health care costs.

So why not just do this? Because he can’t do it unilaterally. He would have to negotiate with SCTA.

But put it this way: Aguilar has been unsuccessful in getting SCTA to agree to starting the school year in mid-August as most school districts do. The union won’t do it. Aguilar has gotten the four other labor unions that work with the district to be part of one large pool that will be less expensive. But SCTA has refused to be part of a larger health care pool unless the savings were spent on hiring more SCTA members.

Do you see now why Steinberg is floating a parcel tax? The mayor is raising the prospect of a political response to a problem that could be solved if reasonable parties were involved.

SCTA leaders John Borsos, David Fisher and Nikki Milevsky repeat the same mantra: “Honor the contract!” The contract Steinberg brokered between SCUSD and SCTA to avoid a teachers strike listed the health care savings being spent on SCTA members as non-binding. It was a goal.

That mantra fires up their members to strike – a one-day strike is set for May 22. And the mantra is used by SCTA leaders to absolve themselves of blame if the district must cut programs for kids.

The floated parcel tax could also be a way to finding funding for programs. Instead of playing politics like McCarty, or ducking the problem like the others, Steinberg is trying to do something.

He’s calling on SCTA to declare victory. Last week, the union won big over SCUSD in arbitration case over raises. It turns out, some SCTA members are getting a 14 percent raise from the deal Steinberg negotiated in 2017 – higher than raises achieved by striking teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland.

Steinberg is saying, correctly, that SCTA has won. He’s asking them to declare victory now that they got their raises and already have the most generous health care package of any teachers in the region.

Steinberg is saying: How about ending the perpetual warfare now and helping SCUSD avoid insolvency and a statewide takeover of Sacramento’s school district?

Helping lead a parcel tax fight is a carrot for SCTA to put down its arms. Is it a perfect solution? No, but do you have a better one?

This issue is crying out for a public response, for a public declaration of “enough!” It’s crying out for us to do what is best for kids – particularly kids in poverty – instead of behaving as unreasonable adults.

To be healthy, SCUSD needs the public to demand that the district culture be reformed and cured of dysfunction and hostility.

Will a parcel tax cure the sick culture of dysfunction that needs to be cured? No.

But absent a community response to cure the culture of Sacramento’s public schools, what we have is a conscientious mayor trying to solve a problem while others stand on the sidelines.

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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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