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East Bay DSA

July 08, 2019

The Sacramento School District is trying to set a dangerous precedent of breaking contracts

By Katie Ferrari

Sacramento teachers have been fighting their district to get their contract implemented for nearly two years. Their struggle puts them on the frontlines of contract enforcement. If the district gets away with breaking the law and not honoring the legally binding contract, it sets a dangerous precedent for other districts and employers across the country.

David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA), says that the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) “feels like [the teachers union] got too good of a deal…because we were too well organized, so now they’re reneging.” He points out that “other districts that have signed agreements that are going to be costly would like to have the precedent of a district like ours to be able to break a contract based on ‘inability to pay’ or budget problems, because if they are successful here, they can be successful in Oakland, LA, or anywhere else.”

District vs. the Union: A Play-by-Play 

In November 2017, teachers won a groundbreaking tentative agreement with major concessions from the district three days before they were scheduled to go on strike. The three-year contract included three annual 2.5% raises, the first of which was retroactive, dating back to July 2016. The union also won an additional 3.5% raise in the 2018-19 school year for mid-career teachers to keep experienced teachers from leaving for higher pay in neighboring districts. Fisher says that mid-career teachers in Sacramento “made anywhere from $10-18k less” than nearby districts.

Most significantly, teachers proposed a way to fund the smaller class sizes and more student supports they were demanding. They would switch their healthcare to a less expensive pool and funnel those savings back into classrooms.

Nearly two years have passed since teachers won this contract, but it has still not been implemented fully. Instead, the district has done everything it can to renege on the contract. It has manufactured budget crises by hiring 18 new administrative positions (at an estimated cost of $3 million) despite a decline in enrollment and undertaking a $6 million vacation buyout for top administrators.

In November 2018, the district sued the teacher’s union in an attempt to break the contract on the grounds of financial difficulties. That December, the district refused to sign a memorandum of understanding that would put health plan savings towards class size reductions and student supports. Instead, they wanted to use the health plan savings to cover the budget deficits they had created.

The Sacramento County Superior Court settled in favor of the union in February 2019 and forced the district to return to salary arbitration. On May 2, the court-appointed arbitrator ruled in favor of teachers. They  would get the additional 3.5% raise for mid-career teachers the contract mandated.

After losing the lawsuit, the district changed tactics and began threatening that implementation of the contract would induce a state takeover. In March, the district announced a $35 million budget deficit that needed to be closed by the end of the 2019 school year. On April 11, Sacramento teachers went on a one-day unfair labor practice strike to demand the district honor the written agreement that health plan savings be used to lower class sizes and improve student services.

A few weeks later, the district released its third interim budget and publicly admitted to making a $16 million mistake in budget projections by undercounting over 700 students in its enrollment. The union had been sounding the alarm about these faulty enrollment numbers since February, and an email leak later revealed that Superintendent Aguilar had known about the miscount as early as April 1.

Despite the $16 million “setback,” the district quickly set to work to create another budget crisis and impending state takeover that they could use to justify breaking the contract and directing health plan savings towards the deficit rather than students. This time, they chose to double the percentage of state-mandated reserves that are required for a school district to stay out of state receivership.

The state-mandated amount is 2%, but SCUSD produced budget projections with a 4% reserve and said they were incapable of meeting this amount and implementing the contract. Another $23 million was added to the budget deficit. Later in May, the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) reviewed the district’s proposed budget and re-adjusted the reserve back to 2%.

Projections went from a $64 million deficit to “a $15 million positive ending balance” in a matter of months, Fisher says. “That’s a $69 million reversal.”

Local Media and Charters vs. the Union  

Throughout this debacle, local media has taken its cues from the district. A week before teachers won their contract, the Sacramento Bee ran an editorial that exemplifies their coverage of this ongoing issue. The Bee slammed the union for demanding class size reductions and support services because, according to the Bee, these were decisions for “the board, superintendent and community to prioritize, not the union.”

Across additional articles and editorials, The Bee and columnist Marcos Breton consistently pretend to defang their anti-teacher sentiment with opening statements like “Teachers don’t make enough money” and “all teachers deserve to be paid more.” Before the reader can breathe a sigh of relief, the district’s financial troubles are brought up and austerity invoked.

The Bee pits teachers’ own demands against one another, insisting that when the district has so little money, it can’t afford to pay teachers more and improve learning conditions. Raises for teachers are consistently equated with cuts to students and higher parcel taxes. The Bee keeps the spotlight on the teachers, and the district’s actions are never scrutinized, even when they are clearly acting in bad faith.

When the district sounded the alarm about a state takeover, the Bee followed suit, stoking panic. Before the April 11 strike, KCRA Channel 3 aired a segment that advertised the $500 per day scab positions the district was hiring for in preparation for the strike. In a pre-strike segment, ABC10 newscasters described the strike in fearful tones, repeating the district’s threat that the strike would push it further towards state takeover. At no point throughout the two-minute segment did either newscaster mention the striking teachers’ demands for smaller class sizes or the district’s financial manipulations.

On top of biased media coverage, charter initiatives targeted working-class and black neighborhoods like Oak Park. Peter Lucas, a member of the Sacramento chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, who has been organizing with teachers, said that charters like Aspire and the California Charter Schools Association “created mistrust between teachers and the community” by insisting that charters were the “only thing” that could save childrens’ education and that charters were “the best place for students of color and working class students to get the resources they needed.” 

Social Media Is Part of Community Organizing 

Gabby McDaniel, a second-year chemistry and women’s leadership teacher at Rosemont High School, said that the Bee’s coverage of the strike “felt like a personal attack” and made it harder for teachers to organize. Teacher site reps had to do a lot of explaining to counter the Bee. “The contract does reduce class sizes,” McDaniel says, “but because teachers did not read it and were relying on the Bee and hearsay, they thought that class sizes had not been reduced.”

Negative and biased media coverage also weakened community support for the teachers. During the April 11 strike, McDaniel says the media and district framed the strike “as teachers who wanted more money and were willing to risk a state takeover, instead of making sacrifices. They really posed us as these evildoers who didn’t have the best interests of the students in mind.”

Parents came away from the news with the sensation that teachers were “just looking out for their own best interest,” an impression that McDaniels feels “hurt some relationships.” Overall, she says that “if there hadn’t been the negative media campaign from the Bee, I feel like we would have had overwhelming community and teacher support.”

Sacramento teachers are still fighting for the district to obey the law and implement their contract. Another strike may be around the corner, and a shift in strategy is needed. To date, the media, the district, and the charter school industry have controlled the narrative around the teachers’ fight for contract enforcement.

Sacramento teachers published informative blog posts and a video of teachers explaining why they were going on strike but have generally lagged in increasing their social media presence. Now more than ever, unions need to take charge and frame the narrative. Social media presence is a key component of community organizing and trust building for unions.

Further south, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) is working to build on the community support it experienced during its strike earlier this year. Arlene Inouye, the union’s secretary and chief bargaining officer, says the union is working on “new parent-community organizing in neighborhoods and extending school site organizing to the neighborhood level.”

This is critical because unorganized neighborhoods create a void for charter astroturf groups like Oakland’s GO Public Schools to fill. Inouye sees this work as building a “template for how unions can move from a strike and build the power that we need to get electoral power as well as organizing power.”

Contract Enforcement Elsewhere

So far, contract enforcement has not been an issue on the East Coast or in Los Angeles. UTLA’s contract went into effect on July 1, 2019, and Inouye says that the district has been cooperating so far, despite the failure of Measure EE, a progressive parcel tax meant to fund public education. Nonetheless, UTLA remains vigilant and is organizing “city-wide contract enforcement around monitoring the nurses and the funding.”

Contract implementation is beginning to be an issue In Oakland, where the district’s central office failed to pay permanent on-site substitutes the full amount of retroactive pay they were guaranteed in the contract. Substitutes were shorted by thousands of dollars in their May 31 paycheck. The district claimed, in direct contradiction to article 24.1.1 of the contract, that new pay rates would not take effect until July 1, 2020.

Lessons from the Wave 

The teacher strike wave has galvanized teachers across the country to fight for better working and learning conditions in their schools and districts. Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and California have won major victories, but the Sacramento school district’s attempt to evade contract implementation by manufacturing budget crises is a critical development. Lucas summarizes the gravity of the situation.

“I think even beyond education unions and struggles, is this idea of contracts becoming pointless if the employer is just allowed to cloud people’s perception and then claim financial woes and renege on the contract. That sets a really dangerous precedent for workers not only in education in Sacramento, but quite frankly, all over the world.”

The past two years have awakened many people to the necessity of unions and the power of the strike. The next lesson the strike wave has to teach is that ratifying the contract isn’t the end of the story.