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Interview: Mayor Darrell Steinberg Discusses Sacramento’s Schools Crisis, Pro Soccer, Rent Control, Arts Funding And ‘Strong Mayor’

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Mayor Darrell Steinberg at the State of the City address in Meadowview on Feb. 19, 2019.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Nearly 2,500 teachers went on a one-day strike last week, the city of Sacramento school district is facing a $35 million budget deficit, and the prospect of state takeover is very real if the two parties can’t forge a solution by this summer, according to Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

The city’s mayor spoke with CapRadio’s Beth Ruyak on the schools crisis as part of a wide-reaching interview that also touched on everything from Major League Soccer (he will not be heading to Los Angeles this week to make Sacramento’s case for a pro team at a scheduled board of governors’ meeting) and giving a face-lift to Old Sacramento (he’ll announce a plan later this month to gather “tens of millions of public dollars through our hotel tax” to improve the waterfront area).

When it comes to the Sacramento City Unified School District’s budget impasse with the Sacramento City Teachers Association, he says the two parties should return to the negotiating table to avoid receivership at all costs. And, he says, he has a few ideas.

Perhaps the most contentious of his proposals is to ask teachers to allow the district to use savings from its new health care plan — which the mayor helped negotiate in the fall of 2017 — to pay off some of its deficit, instead of putting it toward classrooms.

Steinberg says that, after teachers make this concession to avoid a government takeover, some of those health-care savings can go back toward investing in students and reducing class size.

“If it is not addressed — through a combination of administrative cuts, program cuts and these health benefit savings — the consequences for everybody is going to be worse,” Steinberg said of the budget impasse. “We can do better than this in Sacramento.”

To listen to the full conversation with Steinberg — including a discussion of whether he’ll run for a second term and push a “strong mayor” ballot initiative next year — click “play” above.

Interview Highlights

On the budget dispute between SCUSD and the SCTA, and the prospect of a state takeover:

Receivership … would be horrible for the district, its teachers and its kids, because we would lose all control, expensive loans from the state, and it would take 20 years to dig out of that. …

It is not unprecedented. There have been several other districts that have gone into receivership, and they've never really recovered.

And so, here's the issue. It's $35 million deficit, right? The district has some expensive health benefits. They say we need some relief to the tune of …$16 million, and part of an overall solution needs to include deeper administrative cuts and at least temporary cuts to programs. But they need those health benefits savings to avoid state receivership. And that's what must come first. ...

How do you reconcile this. I think there is a way. What you do is you say those health benefits savings need to be used to avoid receivership first, and then you find other savings over the course of time, for example special education in the district. Those costs have spiraled to tens of millions of dollars. If the parties can work together and change this negative relationship and actually find savings in areas like special education, they they can then convert those health care savings over time to investing in class-size reduction, and more counselors, and more librarians, more art, and the things that the kids in the districts so desperately needs. There is an answer here.

On this week’s Major League Soccer board of governors’ meeting in Los Angeles:

There is not a presentation that we've been invited to make. Neither the private ownership nor me, so I probably won't go to L.A., but we are in touch with the league.

And, look, here's the thing: Last week, the Sacramento City Council unanimously made a decision to make a very modest investment in infrastructure in the rail yards. In return, we are now at the front of the line for Major League Soccer, ahead of St. Louis. Well, I think so, but we will see. We have done everything that the league has asked and more.

On a surprise announcement forthcoming for Old Sacramento:

We've actually found a creative way to to gather tens of millions of public dollars through our hotel tax, and to actually put forward a dynamic plan to transform, first stage, of our Sacramento riverfront. I'll leave it at that. [More details] later in the month.

On whether he’ll run in 2020:

I do think it takes more than four years to change the arc of the city, in the way that I think the people want, and to be able to make these long-term, sustained investments; and to say that our city can become this next great American city while not leaving anyone behind. And I do think it takes more than four years to do that, so maybe that's a little bit of a hint, but I'm not ready to make an announcement.

On if he is interested in pushing for a “strong mayor” ballot measure next year:

You know, I am open to that question, if not for me, certainly for a future mayor. I do think that the structure [of Sacramento government] should be changed. I think that, as great a partnership as I have with the city manager, the structure of government, I think, makes it harder to get things done to move assertively and in the direction of the will of the people under this system.

I don't know whether I will seek to do that in the near term, because I'm so focused on the work itself. And so we're looking at it, and I'll look at it. But it isn't what I wake up every morning to focus on.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.

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