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Sacrifice and compromise necessary to avoid insolvency, protect Sacramento schools

Here’s what a state takeover would mean at Sacramento City Unified

Michael Fine from the state's financial crisis team and David Gordon from the county office of education address the Sacramento City Unified School Board on cutting costs in their district on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Sacramento.
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Michael Fine from the state's financial crisis team and David Gordon from the county office of education address the Sacramento City Unified School Board on cutting costs in their district on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Sacramento.

Some local governance challenges were never meant to be addressed alone. Such is the case with the crisis currently plaguing the Sacramento City Unified School District as it attempts to avoid fiscal insolvency and a looming state takeover.

Though neither of us serves as a school district trustee, we’re nonetheless using our voices to emphasize the urgent need for compromise and workable solutions. We do so because of what’s at stake: our children and the people whose vocation and passion it is to teach them. Both are critical to our future.

Despite months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the district continues to be tens of millions of dollars shy of balancing its budget, which means it’s only a matter of time before relatively unsympathetic state agents balance the district’s budget – and charge an expensive interest rate.

Gone will be any direct local authority or oversight mandated by voters when they elected district trustees. The school board’s most important hire, the superintendent, will be shown the door. Should this unfortunate circumstance materialize, all parties involved may find the outcome unpleasant at best.

Students and parents may face larger classroom sizes and less individualized attention. Those teachers able to maintain their positions may be even more overworked and underpaid.

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And scholastic achievement may be the greatest casualty, triggering a regrettable feedback loop and inspiring dissatisfied parents to place their children in educational environments outside of the district. This, in turn, could negatively affect average daily attendance, making it that much more difficult to secure financial stability.

It could be a debilitating and long-term hit for all of us, as evidenced by the fact that the average duration of other district takeovers statewide is over 17 years.

Darrell_Steinberg mug.JPG
Darrell Steinberg
Phil Serna
Phil Serna

We’re not attempting to purposefully frighten anyone here. We’re simply trying to be forthright about the possible outcomes should the district fail to avoid insolvency.

As a mayor and a county supervisor, we’re speaking out to ensure our common constituency understands the gravity of the situation, as well as the added challenge it forebodes for our children, families and teachers.

But penning cautionary essays isn’t enough. We have an obligation to try to help both sides come to agreement and stave off a worst-case scenario that could adversely affect our community for generations.

We encourage both sides to rejoin productive negotiations and explore all options, understanding that neither the district nor the Sacramento City Teachers Association will preserve or achieve everything they want. Sacrifices must be made.

Both sides should start by mutually acknowledging that a state takeover, by its very nature, disenfranchises voters, parents, teachers and organized labor. It comes at extraordinary cost, but with no guarantees.

The district needs to approach any opportunity to negotiate productively by respecting outstanding sensitivities to administrative cost drivers. At the same time, the SCTA needs to acknowledge the high cost of its health plan benefits. And both need to work together as if the ship they’re on together is sinking, because it is.

As your mayor and supervisor, we’ll be damned if we’re going to watch from afar as it slips beneath the waves.

We stand ready to help, and we implore both sides to take us up on the offer to do so immediately. Our kids and our teachers deserve everyone’s best efforts, and we owe it to our community to fight hard for progress.

Darrell Steinberg serves as mayor of the City of Sacramento. He served previously as the California State Senate President pro Tempore. Phil Serna serves as a member of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, representing the First District.
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