Soapbox

To help students and teachers, district must be financially stable

Teacher Larry Ferlazzo works with a student during a history class for English learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento in January.
Teacher Larry Ferlazzo works with a student during a history class for English learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento in January. rbenton@sacbee.com

The Sacramento City Unified School District is grateful to our community for its support and is committed to improving our schools for decades to come.

But to improve, we need to stabilize our finances. We need to ensure that we have enough money in the next economic downturn in the future to pay the salaries, benefits and pensions that our employees so richly deserve.

That need for long-term fiscal stability is a critical issue in our negotiations with the Sacramento City Teachers Association over raises, with a fact-finding hearing scheduled for Monday.

SCTA is seeking a 5 percent salary hike on top of the 3 percent already received over the last two years. Union leaders argue that an 8 percent total boost in salary will help attract new teachers. We agree that the district must do everything in its power to recruit and retain the best and brightest young teachers emerging from area credentialing programs.

In addition to aggressive and creative new recruiting strategies, the district has also offered SCTA members a 2.5 percent increase retroactive to last July for a total increase of 5.5 percent since 2013-14.

The issue isn’t whether to give SCTA an additional 5 percent raise. The issue is whether the district can sustain the increase – or even sustain our teaching force – over time.

SCTA members have the most expensive health benefits in the region. The district pays more than $20,000 per teacher per year on average for medical, dental and vision insurance. That’s 64 percent higher than the statewide average for school districts.

And the cost of health benefits keeps rising. We project that the cost of SCTA benefits will rise 6 percent next year. The cost of these expensive benefit packages reduces the amount of money the district could use to increase salaries.

Adding to the district’s financial stress is our commitment to pay lifetime health benefits to retirees, whose ranks will grow as more baby boomers reach retirement age. We do not have the money to pay these benefits to future retirees, creating a desperate situation that needs immediate attention. Our unfunded liability is $611 million.

As a district with many poor students, Sacramento City is benefiting from the Local Control Funding Formula, aimed at providing more money to schools that serve students needing extra support. The extra money is welcome relief after years of cutbacks, layoffs, school closures, furlough days and increased class sizes. The district is using its state funding to reverse the damaging effects of those past cuts. We’ve brought back custodians, counselors, school nurses, librarians and psychologists. We are lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 24-to-1 across the district and hiring 75 additional teachers. We’ve eliminated furlough days. And we’ve raised salaries, investing $5.2 million back into our employees.

SCTA says teachers deserve 5 percent more in salary. We think our teachers deserve even more – a district with stable finances that can weather any downturn in the economy, and where teachers are not pink-slipped by the dozens when funding is reduced. What better way to recruit new teachers?

We remain committed to negotiating an agreement with SCTA that includes both just compensation for teachers and a means to ensure the long-term financial health of the district.

José Banda is superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. He can be contacted at superintendent@scusd.edu.

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