As the Sacramento City Unified School District approaches potential insolvency, the board is heading into what could be the most high-stakes local election of 2020.
The cash-strapped district may be taken over by the state in the coming months (board members are elected officials and would not be removed under insolvency). Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the campaigns, as candidates backed by opposing interest groups square off in four of the board’s eight trustee areas in the Nov. 3 election.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association’s political action committee is financially backing four candidates. Board president Jessie Ryan is being challenged by Lavinia Grace Phillips, an SCTA-backed candidate. Another board member, Christina Pritchett, is facing Jose Navarro, who is supported by the union.
The union – which has been at odds with the board and district officials for months over the district’s finances and distance learning plan – is also supporting candidates Chinua Rhodes and Nailah Pope-Harden.
The election could change the racial makeup of the school board. Several candidates are people of color, representative of the district’s diverse student population. About 40% of Sacramento City Unified’s students are Latino, 14% are Black and nearly 20% are Asian, according to state data.
Pope-Harden, Phillips and Rhodes are Black, Navarro is Chicano and Vanessa Areiza King is Colombian. Four of the seven current board members are white.
Who’s running for SCUSD board?
AREA 3: Neighborhoods to the east of the city and Rosemont
▪ Christina Pritchett - incumbent: First elected to the board in 2012, Pritchett is a training consultant for the California Clinical Forensic Medical Training Center. She is supported by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Councilman Steve Hansen.
On avoiding receivership: “I’ve been an independent voice for our kids, and state receivership is NOT inevitable,” Pritchett wrote in a Sacramento Bee questionnaire. “Independent audit reports over the last 20 years have told us that we would face the exact problem that we’re facing now. Unfortunately, outside special interests have tied our hands and refuse to negotiate a solution that would bring our benefit obligations in line with other area school districts and allow us to maintain programs for our students sustainably at current levels.”
On working with the SCTA: “Our teachers and staff are amazing, and their work has spoken for itself. Our problem has never been and never will be our amazing teachers and staff. Our teachers, staff, and students deserve an SCTA that is committed to adopting common sense reforms that will bring our district in line with other area school districts and allow us to avoid state receivership.”
▪ Jose Navarro: Information technology specialist for the state and a member of the SEIU 1000’s Latin Committee. He is supported by the SCTA, SEIU Local 1021, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County and the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
On avoiding receivership, Navarro called into question just how soon the district would run out of cash when they announced they could go insolvent in February. “It appears that in their last several budgets, they ‘stuffed’ their ‘books and supplies’ budget line item to prove their deficit problems,” he wrote.
“I am qualified to write software to do the accounting for the district although I am hoping we are using software to do our accounting successfully already, maybe not. I would need a group of four or five other programmers to write the software in a decent amount of time. We would need to review the definitions, formulas and processes. Then we would need to do some design and then start coding, writing the algorithms. My technical expertise will be very helpful in balancing the books.”
On working with the SCTA: “We have to stop attacking one another, stop questioning integrity or intentions, and stop looking at budgets through partisan lenses. I believe we can bring top fiscal officers from local businesses together and have them all tell us all the true facts about the budget.”
AREA 4: South Sacramento neighborhoods, including Elder Creek and Fruitridge
▪ Nailah Pope-Harden: A community activist and single mom of a 1-year-old. She is supported by the SCTA, SEIU Local 1021, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County and the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
On avoiding receivership: “I bring with me, endorsements from teachers and support staff, years of advocating for my community, and a desire to ensure we have a functioning district for my son and students like him,” Pope-Harden wrote. “Sadly, as outlined in the state audit of SCUSD, to fight off receivership, we must look at special education programs’ and teachers’ salaries and benefits. Ideally, these groups deserve more funding, but these are not ideal times. I will ensure cuts from either of these groups be temporary, maintain dignity, and be equitable.”
On working with the SCTA: “To stop this cycle of dysfunction, we must fix the relationship between administrators and teachers,” she wrote. “As a board member endorsed by teachers, this combination makes me the ideal candidate to begin mending what is broken.”
▪ Jamee Villa: A communications specialist with the California Retirees Association. She is supported by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, City Councilman Jay Schenirer, the Sacramento Association of Realtors and SCUSD board member Christina Pritchett.
On avoiding receivership: “The next budget that comes from SCUSD needs to ensure two things: equity and long-term stability,” Villa wrote. “We need to rethink health care and retirement benefits for new hires, but pay higher salaries to attract top-tier talent and take some of the sting out of asking these new employees to contribute a little bit more.”
On working with the SCTA: “It is incredibly important that the board, the superintendent and SCTA have a positive working relationship and it is going to take all of us working together to repair the relationship. Our current state of constant fighting is only hurting our students and frustrating parents like myself. Rebuilding trust between SCUSD and SCTA is going to take both sides being willing to be transparent with each other, being willing to admit when their position isn’t feasible or isn’t in the best interest of students, and then actually moving off of that position. Successful relationships are built knowing that each side holds an emotional stake and works together to appreciate what we bring to the table.”
AREA 5: South Sacramento neighborhoods of Meadowview and Parkway
▪ Chinua Rhodes: A community activist who serves on the city’s Parks and Community Enrichment Commission and Inclusive Economic and Community Development Committee, as well as SCUSD’s Local Control and Accountability Plan Committee. Rhodes is supported by Mai Vang, who is leaving the seat to run for Sacramento City Council. He’s also supported by the SCTA, SEIU Local 1021, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, the Sacramento Central Labor Council and City Councilman Larry Carr.
To avoid receivership, Rhodes said he approaches it from the lens of a lifetime community organizer, bypassing “conventional political wisdom.”
“By allowing all partners to be meaningful collaborators, I believe we can avoid cuts,” Rhodes wrote. “While SCUSD has made efforts to slim its budget, if further cuts should be required, we also should look at our outside contractors and examine potential cost savings by bringing services in-house.”
On working with the SCTA, Rhodes said his list of endorsers shows he can build strong coalitions around shared goals. “Moving forward, we have no choice but to be deeply centered on our students and our community. We must value teachers and labor partners as assets and not line items. Our students’ success is linked to how we collaborate and work together towards a shared vision as a district.”
▪ Vanessa Areiza King: A therapist, she is endorsed by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
To avoid receivership, King said the first step should be getting the union and administration to agree on the same set of facts.
“From the audit performed by the state, it is clear we need to address employee pay and benefits for long-term fiscal solvency,” King wrote. “This can only be done in collaboration with our union partners. To make that happen though, we must all agree on the same set of numbers before clearly defining a path forward in negotiations.”
On working with the SCTA, King said it would be a sign of good faith for the district to rescind the raise given to the superintendent, because it sent the wrong message to an already strained relationship. King also said the district should adopt the teachers’ distance learning plan. “The district needs to show more humility in understanding that teachers teach and are the primary interaction students have for addressing concerns.”
“The district needs to lead by example in what we are asking our union partners (personal financial sacrifice for the greater good). The district should do more to include the teachers union in developing and looking over the budget so there is one agreed set of numbers in finding these necessary cuts.”
AREA 7: South Sacramento neighborhoods of Oak Park, Hollywood Park, and North City Farms
Jessie Ryan - incumbent: Ryan, the board president, was first elected to the board in 2015. She is the executive vice president for a nonprofit called Campaign for College Opportunity. She is supported by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, former California Secretary of Education Gary Hart, Teamsters Joint Council 7, the Latino Democratic Club of Sacramento County and the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
To avoid receivership, Ryan said: “The District offers a healthcare premium twice as expensive as the regional average with zero contribution and 100% family coverage,” Ryan wrote. “While this may have once been an attractive recruitment tool, it’s simply not sustainable. The District must pool purchasing power and switch to a more affordable plan.”
On working with the SCTA, Ryan noted the strained relationship has spanned decades, with past superintendents and several boards prior.“While one board member cannot rewrite history, I believe in the power of parents and classroom teachers to demand a different relationship moving forward. Many teachers and parents are openly expressing dismay over the ‘us vs. them’ mentality when we are all part of the same team. If we can agree to approach the relationship from a mindset that students are our North Star, it changes the dynamic.”
Lavinia Grace Phillips: President of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association and a Sacramento County social worker. She is supported by the SCTA, SEIU 1021, the Sacramento Central Labor Council, Sacramento Sister Circle, Black Women Organized for Political Action and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.
On receivership, Phillips said she’s not sure the school district is actually running out of cash.
“I would love to see the (district’s) money go toward early childhood education, childhood literacy, counseling, and resources for students and families in the district,” Phillips wrote. “This may include the funding of Wi-Fi for distance learning.”
On working with the SCTA: “To build trust in a strong relationship with teachers through their union, it is important to recognize transparency and honest will get you a lot further than lacking truth in dealings with the union and teachers. My job is to listen, my job is to support, my job is to be respectful. This is not for any personal game. This is for SCUSD students.”
This story was originally published October 26, 2020 10:30 AM.