Sacramento teachers union officials say the health care benefits fight between the school district and teachers is the first big leadership test of the new superintendent.
They are right that it is a test, of sorts. But maybe not one for Superintendent José Banda, who took over leadership of the Sacramento City Unified School District this summer.
It’s more an evaluation of union leadership to assess its capability of putting aside historical combativeness and working with a district that has been trying to heal the rift between labor and the administration.
So far, the progress doesn’t look promising. While the district is struggling with much larger issues – implementing Common Core requirements, dropping enrollment, closed facilities, a $200 million unfunded liability – the union is drawing battle lines over what amount to small changes to an extremely generous health care benefit for teachers.
Here’s the basis for the beef: One of the two health care networks named in the teachers’ contract was dropped, and replaced with two rather excellent health care networks. Employers should not mess with employees’ health coverage lightly. But by switching for all employees, the district estimates it will save $6 million to $8 million in its first year.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association says it never agreed to the change and that switching vendors is a violation of the contract. The teachers may be right. We don’t know if it is legally defensible, as the district claims.
Furthermore, teachers union officials say the switch may – they could provide no actual cases – complicate health care for teachers whose kids are away at college but still on the family plan, as the new networks provide only emergency care out of the region. There are other complaints about poor notification of the change in providers, technical glitches and frantic calls to human resources going unreturned for days.
For its part, the district does seem to be acknowledging its fumbles by extending open enrollment until Wednesday.
There are real wrinkles to iron out. The district must make sure no employee or retiree gets left without health care coverage. But the union is ready to go to war, a prospect that can only lead to future cost, confusion and damage to the district. That doesn’t serve anyone very well, least of all teachers.
If SCTA can’t work with Banda, whose collaborative skills have impressed even some initial skeptics, it is unlikely to work with anyone.
In a meeting with the editorial board this week, SCTA Executive Director John Borsos, President Nikki Milevsky and First Vice President David Fischer said they wanted to focus on the bigger educational issues this year. Their preoccupation with this drama doesn’t support that contention. But the test is not yet over. There’s still time to correct course and pull out a passing grade.