Two months into the school year and four months into the tenure of a promising new superintendent, the union representing Sacramento City Unified’s teachers has announced that it will strike this week if the district doesn’t meet its terms for a new contract.
If the futures of 43,000 students weren’t at stake, it would be almost ironic – another darkly humorous example of the labor strife that has come to verge on pathology at Sac City. More than a year into negotiations, the Sacramento City Teachers Association hasn’t budged from its $86 million demand, which is light years both from the roughly $24 million package recommended by a neutral state fact finder and from the district’s $22.8 million offer.
But this threat isn’t remotely amusing, given the challenges already faced by Sac City students, the dedication of rank-and-file teachers and the ill will and expense always created by such a nuclear option.
Two out of three students in the district are so poor that they’re eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Graduation rates have been significantly below the state average for years, falling or essentially flat-lining even as state and county rates trended upward. Dropout rates last year were in the double digits, and nearly one in five for African American students.
If ever a district needed all its stakeholders to be pulling in the same direction, it’s this one. But union leaders appear to be itching for a showdown, never mind that new Superintendent Jorge Aguilar was hired away from Fresno Unified for his impressive track record in improving outcomes at urban schools.
Not only did SCTA not wait for Aguilar, the union held a strike vote even before the fact finder mediating the dispute could issue her recommendations. Those recommendations, issued last week by an arbitrator for the state board handling collective bargaining disputes for public employees, mostly support the district.
Predictably, the union has trashed them, though their own leaders helped pick the fact finder. But her report is reasonable, and makes it hard not to wonder just whom this strike is designed to serve.
No one disagrees, for example, that the district’s 2,800 teachers should get a substantial pay bump. The union’s proposal calls for about $33 million worth of pay increases and the district’s has edged upward over the months to a little over $22 million. It’s unclear why it would take a mass walkout to bridge that gap.
The union also wants to write into the contract a host of costly classroom size reductions, support services and other spending that should be for the board, superintendent and community to prioritize, not the union. For instance, Sac City already limits K-3 classroom sizes, but SCTA wants to extend those limits contractually beyond fourth grade.
Such a mandate would channel money more into affluent neighborhoods than poor ones because the more crowded classrooms are in those higher performing high-demand schools. Do we want that?
And, as the state fact finder points out, the union and district could work together to find the money for the arts and athletic programs, summer classes and other improvements the union is demanding. Sac City teachers’ health benefits are among the most generous – and costliest – in California. Teachers get health care coverage into retirement, and both sides want to at least reduce the district’s premiums, perhaps by expanding the insurance pool.
Doing that could free up several million dollars a year, experts have told the union and the district. In a less dysfunctional district, both parties would be working together to make that happen. Such a savings could either pare back the benefit or broaden the insurance pool to bring down premiums so that the unfunded benefits liability, which is massive, can be addressed and more of the general fund can be plowed back into the classroom.
Sac City teachers can be forgiven their frustration; this district’s administration has not always adequately served them or students. But the hiring of Aguilar, and fresh membership on the board, has created the first opening in years for real change in the district.
Don’t blow it, SCTA. Don’t let your combative generals mislead you into an unneeded disaster. Not every skirmish requires a bazooka. Give peace a chance.