Sacramento City Unified teachers said they will strike next Wednesday if the school district doesn’t agree to bigger pay increases, reduced class sizes and improved working conditions.
The announcement came Thursday afternoon at a Sacramento City Teachers Association rally before the district’s regular school board meeting. The prospect of the city district’s first strike since 1989 left teachers, administrators and parents on edge as they waited to see if a deal could avoid impacting 47,000 students.
About 1,000 people gathered outside district offices Thursday afternoon, many holding signs stating “Let’s make Sac City the destination district” and “Great teachers together.” They cheered and, when appropriate, booed in response to statements from union president David Fisher, who stood atop a utility box.
Tensions between the teachers union and the school district have grown over more than a year of contract negotiations, with both sides publicly blaming the other for the stalemate. The teachers are working under a contract that expired in December.
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The two sides received a report late Wednesday from the state Public Employment Relations Board. The board, which has been acting as a mediator, was expected to issue contract recommendations.
Teachers last month overwhelmingly authorized the union to call a strike if an impasse continued. Fisher on Thursday dismissed the state’s findings without mentioning specifics. “The report is badly written and filled with errors and contradictions that make it virtually useless,” he said.
The last Sacramento City Unified strike occurred in September 1989 at the start of the school year. Teachers were out for a week – the longest time in district history. Schools remained open but saw about twice as many student absences as usual during the walkout.
Tom McElheney, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School, said that he’s “heartbroken today” because he also works on a district wellness committee ensuring that schools reach health and physical education goals each year.
“Because of my work with the wellness committee and my allegiance to the district, it feels like my two parents are fighting,” he said.
Anna Molander, head of the parent teacher organization at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School in Land Park and mother of two students, said she’s supporting the teachers union.
“I want our teachers to know we know they are fighting for our kids, not for raises,” she said. “I think they know what the priorities should be.”
Molander was endorsed by the union in her unsuccessful 2014 run for trustee against current board president Jay Hansen. She said she’ll take time off work and will keep her kids home from school if a strike occurs.
According to documents provided Thursday by the teachers association and district, the sides disagree on a number of points.
The district is willing to provide a retroactive 2.5 percent raise for the past school year and another 3.5 percent raise for the current year.
The teachers union wants a retroactive raise of at least 4 percent, a 3.5 percent raise in the current year and another 3.5 percent raise in the 2018-19 school year. The union also wants changes in the salary schedule that would move teachers up the pay scale faster.
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Sacramento City Unified teachers are among the lowest salaried in the region, which the union says has hurt recruitment and resulted in “undercredentialed educators” teaching in some classrooms. The Bee last year found that Sacramento City Unified’s average teacher salary of $67,009 in 2014-15 ranked fourth from the bottom out of 14 comparable local districts.
The city district, however, is the only large area district that covers the full cost of premiums for medical, dental and vision care for teachers and their families. It also provides health care for teachers in retirement if they work more than 15 years.
The raises would bring the average teacher’s total compensation, with pay and benefits, to $99,425, according to the district. The current amount is $91,238 annually, with $20,895 of that from health benefits.
The union says the pay increases would amount to 11 percent over three school years. They would still leave district teachers at the bottom of pay rates among 23 similar school districts in the state, Fisher said last month.
District spokesman Alex Barrios said the salary increases requested by the union would equate to a 16 percent raise over three years, costing the district $33 million. He said the 2016 raise would actually be 9 percent because of the changes to the salary scale.
“It’s not a workable proposal,” he said.
Teachers are also seeking a significant reduction in class sizes from fourth grade to high school. Last month, the union asked that fourth- through sixth-grade classes shrink from 33 students to 24 students, while middle and high schools go from a maximum of 35 students down to 28 students.
Sacramento City Unified in 2016 reduced all kindergarten to third-grade class sizes to 24 students, but kept larger class sizes at the higher grade levels.
The district says reducing class sizes across the board would require an additional 273 full-time teachers at a cost of $27.3 million over a three-year contract. “It’s a good thing,” Barrios said. “But if they are going to prioritize salary raises, we can’t afford class size reductions.”
Teachers are seeking a variety of other changes that relate to working conditions and support for students. According to documents provided by the union and district, they include:
▪ Additional art and music teachers, which would allow the district to increase prep time for elementary school teachers. A district document says this would require hiring 60 full-time teachers.
▪ Limiting yard duty to no more than once every 10 working days.
▪ Paid time for staff meetings at the “contract hourly rate.”
▪ Benefits for substitutes who work more than 30 consecutive days, 130 hours per month or 120 days per school year.
▪ Hiring more nurses, speech therapists, librarians, psychologists and program specialists.
▪ Guaranteed access to arts and music for every student.
▪ Early academic interventions at each elementary and K-8 school.
As school let out for summer in June, the district sent parents an email blaming the teachers union for a contract impasse and suggesting that it could “impact our ability to provide services to students in the next school year.”
The rhetoric has ramped up considerably since Oct.11 when the union completed a strike vote and announced that a majority of the district’s 2,200 teachers and 600 substitutes are willing to walk off the job.
On Oct. 12, the school board answered with an emergency resolution giving Superintendent Jorge Aguilar the power to close schools, remove picketers from campuses and pay substitutes up to $500 a day should teachers go on strike.
About 1,000 teachers have joined the district’s strike substitute pool, said SCUSD board president Hansen. District officials are vetting their credentials to make sure they are qualified, he said. He acknowledged that the district would unlikely be able to find enough replacements for all 2,200 teachers.
Union members in the past week have handed out fliers before school with at least one trustee’s cellphone number, urging parents to pressure district leaders to end the disagreement. Hansen said the union also has picketed in front of his workplace, the California Medical Association Foundation. Hansen, the foundation’s CEO, said he had to close business for a couple of hours while about 85 people waved signs outside.
What happens now that the state Public Employment Relations Board report has been released is also an issue of contention. District officials say no union action can take place until about 12 days after the report is received. Union officials have said they can strike after receiving the report and giving the district adequate notice.