California Forum

SCUSD, teachers union have waged war for two years. It’s time to make peace

In my decades of public service, I have nearly always been able to see a pathway to success or compromise on difficult public policy challenges. Even when we faced unprecedented state budget deficits during the recession, there was always a chance to save California from bankruptcy so long as all sides continued to talk to each other, reason together and commit to an absolute avoidance of the state defaulting on its commitments and obligations.

Never in the most difficult moments of that crisis did I ever feel as much frustration and hopelessness as I do both participating in and observing the deteriorating situation between the Sacramento City Unified School District and its teachers union.

County Superintendent Dave Gordon has again rejected the district’s budget, saying that more cuts are essential to reduce its long-term deficit. The district seeks to reduce health care costs for all its employees, including teachers, to avoid deeper cuts to the students, teachers and programs.

Teachers union leadership is at war with the district leadership, attacks the board president personally and expertly picks apart the district’s historic and more recent fiscal mistakes. Meanwhile, parents and the larger community ask what it will take to get the district and its most powerful constituent stakeholder to work it out.

Confidence in Sacramento’s largest school district continues to erode.


There are two undisputed facts: One is that the district faces a multi-million-dollar ongoing budget deficit and will fall $27 million short of meeting its minimum reserve requirement by 2021 (seems like forever but it’s really around the corner). If the district runs out of cash, which could happen as early as next year, it will likely be taken over by the county and the state. Second, state receivership would require the district to take on expensive loans, and all stakeholders, including the district and teachers, would lose control of our Sacramento schools.

The city has no formal jurisdiction over SCUSD. Yet if this stalemate persists, the dysfunction of our schools will scare away potential residents and employers. It will prevent us from realizing our vision of extending economic opportunity to all of our young people.

At some point, does it matter who is right? Does it matter if the parties like or even trust each other? Isn’t it time to sit down within a collective bargaining framework and negotiate?

The path to an agreement may actually lie within the disputed 2017 contract I helped mediate. This is the same settlement that avoided a strike but then led to two years of bitterness and breakdowns.

It committed the parties to negotiating real health care savings and investing those savings in school counselors, school nurses and other items directly tied to student performance. SCUSD’s huge deficit only became known after the agreement was reached.

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Darrell Steinberg

Why not negotiate the necessary health care savings and split the difference? In fact, the negotiation could direct the health care savings to deficit reduction for a specific limited time. The parties could then agree to spend that limited time finding real ways to reduce other cost drivers, like special education (early intervention not only helps kids with challenges but also saves the ballooning costs down the line).

For every dollar saved, a dollar from the health care savings would go from deficit reduction to being invested immediately into programs, consistent with the original intent of the prior agreement. Or the parties could split the health care savings from the start – half to deficit reduction, half directly to schools.

It should not be that hard, but it’s impossible if the parties don’t negotiate. I know the union is still angry at me for proclaiming publicly that I have the superintendent’s back. I still believe that stability and sustained leadership is essential for the district, its teachers and students to succeed.

Teachers, I want you to know that I have your backs, too. I had your backs in 2017. You are the lifeblood of every student’s educational experience. This city needs you to be positive community leaders.

You may outwit the district and win this battle over health care, but to what end? You acknowledged the need for health care savings in 2017. Do you really believe that receivership is better than a negotiated agreement? Will teachers really be better off with the state running the district’s day-to day operations?

The district must acknowledge its past mistakes and its part in this mess. A broken relationship always has two sides. The district’s history of fiscal management has not been inspiring. The deficit inherited by the new superintendent and board was decades in the making. Only recently has the district hired experienced fiscal advisors. Superintendent Jorge Aguilar has a true equity vision. But for a new superintendent, a vision without a team that is steady, experienced and on top of the numbers is not enough.

The business, labor, equity and parent communities must organize – and not for one side or the other. Community leaders must insist on a negotiated solution. If there are alternatives to health care savings that are not one-time in nature and do not cut school and student investments, why not allow respected business, labor, parent and equity leaders to identify and validate those savings? Something productive must break the negative spiral that is leading nowhere.

I call on both parties to resume good faith negotiations with the help from your community. The only way to eventually build trust is to begin the process of negotiation and healing.

You need not forget your grievances. Just set them aside for now and try to reach an agreement that is fair to teachers, reduces the deficit and allows for the real possibility of re-investing in our Sacramento kids.

Darrell Steinberg is mayor of the city of Sacramento.
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