Opinion

The teacher’s union spins, the mind reels. And the budget crisis still looms.

SCUSD Board of Education President Jessie Ryan discusses layoffs

The Sacramento City Unified School District approved 102 layoffs of certificated employees during a Board of Education meeting on May 9, 2019, as it continues to struggle financially and contends with a possible state takeover.
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The Sacramento City Unified School District approved 102 layoffs of certificated employees during a Board of Education meeting on May 9, 2019, as it continues to struggle financially and contends with a possible state takeover.

I am a parent in the Sacramento City Unified School District and I love my teachers. They are my partners in raising my children.

The level of dedication, love and caring we’ve experienced at SCUSD from principals, teachers, assistant principals, counselors and many other district employees has been inspiring.

But I wasn’t supportive of the one-day teachers strike on April 11 and I’m even less supportive of the scheduled one-day strike on May 22.

Why? Because the district is facing a $35-million budget deficit and insolvency. The clock is ticking on a statewide takeover of the district that would be a disaster for everyone.

And all a threatened strike does is distract from closing the budget hole and avoiding insolvency. It also hurts kids by creating chaotic situations that breed instability on school campuses.. This is particularly harmful in high poverty schools.

Opinion

The teachers not only got the raises they wanted in a labor deal, they got more. They have the most generous health care coverage of any teachers in the region by a wide margin. And the other disputes they have with the district could be solved with cooperative bargaining.

But the Sacramento City Teachers Association doesn’t play that way.

It is a propaganda machine. It cares about its narrative above everything else. It says one thing, it does another. It attempts to distract and stall. It has played an outsized role in exacerbating instability in the district for years.

For example: The SCTA mantra is “Honor the contract!” It claims the district is not honoring a provision in a 2017 contract brokered by Mayor Darrell Steinberg that calls for SCTA to join four other labor groups doing business with the district in one big health care pool.

If all district employees were in the same health care pool, the district could achieve millions in health care savings. How much? Maybe as much as $16 million. Would that close the $35-million gap? No, but it would save a lot of programs for kids.

But SCTA claims that the 2017 Steinberg contract calls for any health care savings to go to hiring SCTA members, such as nurses, librarians, counselors.

OK, but if the health care savings go to more hiring, then they aren’t savings at all. Then the district is adding staff and adding payroll when the district is being told by state and county officials to cut $35 million – or else face a state takeover.

If you believe in logic at all, then the SCTA position makes no sense on any level. It is threatening a strike by holding to a position that would result in more spending on more employees when the district badly needs to plug its budget hole. The union claims its position helps kids by adding more staff to lower class sizes. But the district’s fiscal state demands that every addition must come with a corresponding cut. This isn’t the district being vindictive. This is the district having to find $35 million in cuts – period.

But what is even more illustrative of SCTA’s scorched earth agenda is that it sticks to its talking points and claims the district is in violation of its labor contract when the SCTA’s position on the contract terms is not backed up by the actual contract terms.

This business about spending health care savings on more hires? The contract doesn’t explicitly call for that, and is full of qualifications that undermine the union position.

The 2017 agreement says the district and the SCTA would negotiate together and – by July 1, 2018 – the parties would “effectuate” the health care savings. My dictionary says the definition of effectuate is: “to cause or bring about (something) : to put (something) into effect or operation.”

Well, that didn’t happen. The changes were not implemented by July 1, 2018 primarily because SCTA and the district were negotiating over the size of the raises that we thought were settled in the Steinberg contract, but really weren’t.

Instead of getting 11 percent raises, some teachers will get 14 percent thanks to an arbitration the SCTA recently won in which the union basically got one over on the district.

OK, the teachers won their raises – no one should deny that. But now the SCTA is sticking to its mantra on the health care when the deadline for those deals has already elapsed. Steinberg is imploring SCTA to be reasonable:

“The vexing and maddening part of the threatened strike and impasse is that there are no savings to fight about,” Steinberg said in a statement.

“ Even if the parties were to agree to health care savings over the remaining weeks of the contract, those savings could not be realized retroactively.”

But there is more: At the bottom of one of the pages of the Steinberg contract, in the mayor’s own handwriting, the health care savings provisions that SCTA is going to war over were described as “non-binding goals.”

Merriam-Webster describes non-binding as: “having no legal or binding force : not binding.” In other words, the district is not legally bound to enforce this portion of the contact. Spending the health care savings on more hires were “goals.”

On another page, Steinberg’s handwriting spells out a key provision: “If the funds are not sufficient to meet the goals, the parties will negotiate priorities.”

A $35-million budget deficit should indicate that the funds are not sufficient to spend on more hires.

Despite Steinberg’s plea to negotiate and the coming insolvency, SCTA continues to bang the drums louder for its talking points.

On Friday, a parent at Phoebe Hurst Elementary School sent me a flier that SCTA members were passing out to parents. It said that the district was in violation of the contract. Such a declarative statement, in advance of any independent arbitration ruling, is deceptive and misleading.

It said that SCTA was fighting to get more nurses, without explaining that to do so would add to the deficit that could push the district into insolvency.

On Tuesday, SCTA published an op-ed in The Bee written David Fisher and Nikki Milevsky. These are two ranking SCTA leaders who claim they have a proposal that will save the district $34 million, which would effectively save the district from insolvency, if the SCTA claims were real.

“(SCTA) have been assured by state authorities that these projections are both fiscally sound and viable,” Fisher and Millevsky wrote.

It’s sounds great, but it’s not true.

Not long after Fisher and Milevsky’s piece ran in The Bee, the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, an independent state agency that assists districts in financial distress, released a statement that it had not conducted an independent analysis of the

“plan” that Fisher and Millevsky unveiled in the Bee

FCMAT officials said in their statement that they met “informally” with SCTA and Steinberg, but that was it. They met informally.

FCMAT said that the only real analysis of SCTA savings proposals was done by the Sacramento County Office of Education earlier this year.

It’s funny, but Fisher and Millevsky didn’t mention the SCOE analysis in their Bee op-ed. Why? Well, my guess is that SCOE – led by County Education Superintendent Dave Gordon – didn’t tell SCTA what it wanted to hear.

For example: Fisher and Millevsky claim that “SCUSD overfunds retiree health benefits by $8.5 million per year. The district budgets $25 million per year for retiree health, but expenses are only $16.5 million. Redirecting that $8.5 million over three years creates a savings of $25.5 million.”

That sounds great until you consider that Gordon has been warning SCUSD for 14 years that its post-employment health plan is badly underfunded. In a February letter to SCTA, Gordon wrote that the district’s unfunded obligation was $726 million.

So what are Fisher and Millevsky suggesting? That the district doesn’t really have to set aside much money to fund its post-employment benefits?.

Is that a bad business practice? It’s worse. It’s insanity. Healthy organizations pre-fund their post-employment benefit plans and don’t use them as piggy banks to pay for operating expenses.

Fisher and Millevsky also claim that “The number of SCUSD administrators has surged from 166 to 274 – a 65 percent increase. Cutting staff and salaries achieves nearly $16 million in savings, with a net decrease of $48 million over three years.”

But SCOE’s analysis of SCUSD administration was far different.

“Within the central support functions of the district... total unrestricted administrator (certificated and classified) salary and benefit costs are less than $8M. A 20% reduction to this amount generates $1.6M in savings, significantly less than the $8.7M that SCTA has identified,” SCOE wrote in February.

Did you catch that: The administrative staff housed in south Sacramento at the Serna Center costs the district $8 million. That includes the salaries of the superintendent and everyone working under him there.

SCOE says $29 million more in administration costs is spread out across campuses in the district, but a lot of that is tied up in grants and programs.

For Fisher and Millevsky to simply state that $16 million in administrative costs can be saved when no state agency has analyzed this claim is irresponsible and speaks to what they represent: themselves.

In a healthy school district, any analysis of administrative cuts would go line by line. What if the position you want to cut is tied to a grant helping kids? Is the district supposed to cut these positions just because SCTA cares about its members more than non-SCTA employees?

After FCMAT announced that they had not analyzed Fisher and Millevsky’s plan, SCTA played its diversion game again. It called on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, County Supervisor Phil Serna and local business leaders to convene a committee to break the logjam.

SCTA didn’t mention Steinberg because the Mayor wants them to be reasonable on health care. He wants them to negotiate with the district so that health care savings would go to kids and programs.

Why not just do that? Imagine if someone went to the leaders of local health care system such as Mercy or Sutter and said: We’re gonna bring a committee in to solve your labor issues.

Would any business leaders put up with that? No way.

FCMAT CEO Mike Fine told The Bee that he reluctantly agreed to help, but at this point neither FCMAT nor Thurmond have any real authority in SCUSD labor negotiations. Gordon has direct authority over all county schools and Thurmond and Fine must make sure that whatever happens, this doesn’t become an end run around Gordon and the County Office of Education.

One thing is certain: SCTA didn’t invite Steinberg, who told it what it didn’t want to hear. It seems to be trying to big-foot Gordon, who also told it what it didn’t want to hear. It didn’t invite any parents, who are growing increasingly critical of its tactics. It didn’t invite students, whose lives it is playing with.

Truthfully, what is needed more than politicians are the people. Teachers could demand better representation. Parents could demand an end to this perpetual labor war.

The bottom line is that a majority of SCTA members are white, as is SCTA leadership. A majority of SCUSD students are African American and Latino. If this process ends up being about about politics rather than kids, then Sacramento will perpetuate inequality in public schools.

A community is watching.

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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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