Updated 6:06 p.m.
Sacramento teachers and school employees went on strike Thursday in order to pressure the city school district to fully implement a deal they made back in 2017, labor leaders say.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association, the union representing 2,500 teachers and employees, organized the strike. It says the picket was not over salaries, but instead because school administrators aren’t following through on a promise to fund better classroom staffing.
History teacher Tim Douglas was one of the first to join the picket line at McClatchy High School on Thursday morning. He wants the district to stick to a contract and decrease class sizes.
“We don’t want to be out here, but we’re doing it for your children,” he said.
David Fisher, president of SCTA, says the union agreed during contract negotiations in the fall of 2017 to switch employee health coverage to save the district money, but only if it spent the freed-up money on reducing class sizes and other student services.
“We've been trying to get these services for students for over a decade,” said Fisher. “Our ratios of school nurses, school psychologists, counselors and even class sizes are the largest and the most atrocious in the area.”
The Sacramento City Unified School District denies that class sizes are a problem. Spokesperson Alex Barrios says the school district has a massive $35 million budget hole, and it needs any savings garnered through an employee health plan change to help close the spending gap.
Barrios says almost half of the budget deficit could be remedied by switching employee health benefits.
“[School] programs are at risk if we cannot find savings in other areas,” Barrios said. “In order to find those savings, we have to work with our labor partners. We have to all work together and we have to make our priorities saving our schools from a state takeover.”
Sacramento teachers received an across-the-board 7.5 percent salary increase as a result of the 2017 agreement. The district says it spends 91 cents of every dollar on salaries and benefits, and it claims this is more than the average in other districts.
Emotions are sky high among people who run Sacramento city schools. Last Thursday’s board meeting was packed with parents and teachers concerned about the district’s massive cash flow problems. Board members like Christina Pritchett teared up.
“My heart hurts for all of our students, and everybody that is going through this with us,” Pritchett said.
At the meeting, board members and the public heard presentations about areas of the budget that could be slashed, such as sports, music and student centers that help children with suicidal thoughts.
Michelle Giacomini did a deep dive into Sacramento city’s books through the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. She says cuts needed to be made in order to afford the teacher raises, but the right cuts didn’t happen.
“It’s not that teachers were paid too much, it’s that the district is spending too much,” said Giacomini. “Basically, through time, [the district] made a lot of decisions and not made the necessary adjustments in their budget to be able to offset them.”
Sacramento County school superintendent Dave Gordon said the district’s book-balancing has been problematic for at least a decade, and its relationship with teachers has been contentious for a long time, too.
On Thursday, school board president Jesse Ryan said she hopes teachers and administrators can coalesce to find more money for schools.
"We have to figure out a way to be more than 41st in the nation in per-student spending,” she said. “We have to get more revenue, or we're not going to be able to provide necessary compensation [and] programs and services for our kids.”
Fisher says this was the first time since 1989 that teachers have gone on strike, and that they did it to prevent the precedent of school districts back-tracking on labor agreements.
“If our district is allowed to just sign a contract and then change their mind, and not implement it, what does that say for Los Angeles, or Oakland, or for any other district, when that district, to avoid a strike or to end a strike can sign anything, and then never implement it?” Fisher asked.
If Sacramento city schools don’t close its budget gap by June 20, the district will need a state loan, and the county will eventually appoint a new administrator over the schools.