Almost all of Sacramento County’s thirteen school districts have a distance learning plan in place during the pandemic — agreed to by both teachers and administrators — and are in solid financial shape.
But there is one outlier: the Sacramento City Unified School District.
That’s according to Dave Gordon, the Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools, who provides fiscal oversight and other guidance to schools from Elk Grove to Elverta.
In a recent interview, Gordon told CapRadio that the impasse between SCUSD and its labor partner, Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA), could compromise the district’s ability to comply with education laws, and be a roadblock to reimbursement
In a recent letter to California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, the district expressed concern about teachers’ schedules that vary from the district, and that some are “either less than the required instructional minutes or lack the daily live instruction requirement under the law.”
The district confirmed to CapRadio that it faces financial penalties if it does not adequately track attendance and the amount of learning — live or independent study — that takes place among its 42,000 students.
CapRadio interviewed county Superintendent Gordon about the impact of the deadlocked negotiations over distance learning in SCUSD, and about the district’s long term fiscal viability. Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
What is your role over Sacramento school districts?
We do fiscal oversight of all of the school districts. We don't oversee their instructional practices, but if asked, we would give guidance.
So the situation right now at Sacramento City Unified appears that the district is providing a set of directions and the teachers are providing, in some or many cases, different directions than the district. And the district really needs to function as one organization — not as a teacher-run organization and a district-run organization. So what seems to be going on now is not appropriate [and] not legal, most likely. And you can imagine the chaos that this is creating.
Can you tell me more about that? That that situation is not legal? What do you mean by that?
Well, the district is authorized to run its affairs and report to the state and account to the state for the work that's done. It has to meet the state criteria for what they consider reimbursable under distance learning. And they are accountable to directives from the State Department of Education for what it will take to get reimbursed for the teaching work that gets done through the distance learning. So if they can't prescribe what has to be done to justify the reimbursement that they're expecting, they may simply not get paid for the instruction. And if they have teachers freelancing and saying, “Well, we're doing this, that and the other thing” — how do you ensure that that will be reimbursable?
You recently co-authored a blog post with Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in which you said “twelve other school districts in Sacramento each function as a single school system.” What do you mean by that?
Well, [that] there is a common set of directions for how the system runs. So in this case, the Distance Learning Program is developed and designed jointly by the district and the labor partners. And it's executed by teachers. And there's one set of directions, one set of guidance to parents and to students on how the distance learning will proceed. It doesn't make sense to have different directions for how the instruction should be operated.
What is your take on how the Sacramento City Unified School District and the labor union SCTA have gotten to this point? How have they gotten to this level of mistrust such that they can't come to a distance learning agreement?
Well … a school district is an organization. It’s an organization made up of people. If people are to do good work, they have to work together. And they have to enter with the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. And that's the only way you can build a strong organization. There has to be a willingness and an interest in doing that. The Sacramento district has had six superintendents in the last r eight or nine years, and you can't sustain a high functioning organization with that kind of turnover. It's an organization with 3-4,000 employees. (Editor’s correction: The Sacramento school district has had six superintendents in 12 years, not eight or nine) You have to put the time in and you have to put the collaboration and cooperation in to make it work as a system. The other districts do that.
So it sounds like you’re saying that some of the leadership changes — or the number of leadership changes — in the district hasn't helped remedy the situation. How would you recommend they build a spirit of cooperation if it wouldn't come from leadership change?
Well, I mean, the leadership of the union has not changed. The leadership on the part of the district management — superintendents — has changed over, over and over.
(Editor’s note: SCTA clarified to CapRadio that their current board president, David Fisher, has been in that position for 3 years, and previously served as vice president for 2 two terms. John Borsos has been executive director since 2014)
Are you saying it would be helpful if there were leadership change at SCTA?
No, no. I'm saying it would be helpful if there was a spirit of cooperation and collaboration rather than a situation where people were always battling and not giving the grace to others to say, “OK.” Particularly now. It's a pandemic. It's a very, very tense and difficult situation for families, for young people. Let's not make things worse by not working together as an organization.
If you look at our other districts, that's what they do. And that's why they're both financially sound and they're moving ahead. And they've worked hard to improve their distance learning from what they delivered in the spring, when they had to switch on a dime. They've improved their distance learning.
Can you tell me what you know about what kind of distance learning needs to take place during the pandemic? Like how many minutes [are required], whether they be asynchronous or synchronous, etc?
Well, there are definite minute requirements. And the synchronous and asynchronous learning, those things are the subject of collective bargaining agreements between the district and the exclusive representative, which is the teacher union. And that's what's in dispute.
The minute requirements are what have to be documented to get the reimbursement. And there is a process for documenting those, which the district must follow. If the district doesn't follow it, it could be at risk of not earning reimbursement for the contacts with those particular students.
So what is the status of SCUSD’s budget situation?
The current status is they’re in a “negative certification,” which means that they're at risk of going insolvent in the next budget year or the year after that. And the standard for insolvency with the district is literally when they run out of cash.
The problem that they have had over the years is what we call “deficit spending.” That’s when money shows up in your budget, and you spend it as if it's going to reoccur. But it's one-time money, which isn't going to reoccur. Then, in the subsequent year, you're basically using hope as a strategy, that you hope that some more money will show up to be able to pay for the costs you pushed forward. And they've done that year, after year, after year. And they've needed to make some cuts for the last several years. And at some point, if they exhaust their reserves and they run out of cash, they would then become insolvent.
You said the district may run out of cash this year or next, but you're not sure when?
Right now, they would project to run out of cash early in the next calendar year. Early in 2021. But cash is very, very volatile and that could change.
Any proposals for a path forward for SCUSD, and how the district could better serve its kids?
Well, it needs to be one system. I always use the example, “it’s like your family.” People have to work together, and that strengthens the organization, it strengthens the family. And you build a culture where people work together. People are always more effective when they work together, and they cooperate and collaborate. When they have difficult problems, they work even more closely together to solve difficult problems. That's what's needed here.
The work is too important not to do well. There are so many needy families in the Sacramento Unified District. They need and deserve better than mixed messages.
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