Sacramento Teacher Strike Is a Warning to #RedForEd Movement Everywhere

By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The enduring RedForEd movement that has spurred teachers to walk out of schools, organize massive labor actions, and stage protests in streets and state capitols has resulted in big victories for teachers in terms of new labor-friendly contracts, increased teacher pay, and improved conditions in schools. But there’s a danger these victories could be undone. That’s the warning coming from teachers in Sacramento who are threatening to walk off the job over alleged violations of their collective bargaining agreement with the district.

Much like other teacher actions that have occurred across the nation, Sacramento teachers are demanding changes to their salaries, reduced class sizes, and increases in school support staff including more nurses, psychologists, librarians, and program specialists. But unlike other teacher walkouts, what’s happening in Sacramento is a replay of what they thought they had already won.

“We thought we had an agreement when we threatened to strike last year,” David Fisher tells me in a phone conversation. Fisher is the president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA), which threatened a walkout in November 2017 of the previous school year.

“We were motivated by what was happening in RedForEd movements elsewhere,” he recalls. “We had everything lined up [in preparation for the strike] including having parents organized and having meals ready for the kids” who were going to miss school lunches.

The strike was averted when the union and district administration came to an agreement and signed a new contract in December 2017. Specifically, the three-year contract included an across-the-board pay increase for teachers. Salaries for the district’s teachers are below state averages and rank fourth from the bottom when compared to 14 other comparable districts in the state, according the Sacramento Bee.

Also, teachers won an adjustment to salary schedules that would result in an additional 3.5 percent increase to teachers in the middle stages of their careers. Fisher maintains the pay lag for those teachers had resulted in significant attrition as teachers left the district and went to work in adjacent districts to increase their salaries.

Another significant win for the teachers was to get the district’s reassurance it would hire additional teachers to lower class sizes, especially in the later elementary and middle school grades, and add more school support personnel. In order to fund those new positions, the district pledged to “work with the teachers union,” according to local news reports, to find savings in the employee health care program.

Now the district is refusing to implement the salary rescheduling, Fisher says, and the administration claims the savings from the health care benefits aren’t there, so there’s no money for the class size reduction and additional support staff.

As the district has dug in its heels, teachers went to court to force the district into arbitration—something else the contract required—to implement the salary schedule restructuring. And teachers are demanding the district confirm what kinds of savings it has and hasn’t been able to wring from the health care plan in order to pay for class size reductions and increased support staff, according to Fisher.

In its defense, the district points to an estimated budget deficit of nearly $30 million, which could push the district into insolvency sometime this year and risk a takeover by the state.

Teachers point to data showing that when the district signed the contract with the union, the school system was in its best financial condition ever, with a balance of $56 million in its unreserved fund, double-digit revenue increases, and spending falling short of projections. At the end of the 2017–2018 school year,district income came in over 5 percent above budget.

What happened to the money?

While some local analysts point to the 2017 labor contract as the cause of financial woes, it’s not hard to find other drains on the district’s budget that can be solely attributed to questionable administrative decisions.

First, the district, a regional unified system made up of multiple smaller districts, poured huge amounts of money into salaries and bonuses for all the various superintendents, increasing administrator pay at a clip much faster than the rate of teacher pay boosts. The number of administrators also grew, the union contends, from 251 to 269.8, adding an additional 3.5 million to salaried positions. Fisher told me the average total compensation for district administrators is over $150,000. According to the union’s calculations, the district would save $16.6 million by reducing administrative staff levels to those in 2014–2015 when student enrollment was actually higher.

Also, the district instituted a “use it or lose it” vacation policy that instantly led to a $6 million payout in stored vacation time to administrative employees. The district maintained there would be financial benefits long term, but teachers argue the district didn’t have to release the money all at once.

Teachers also want the state to investigate a recent contract the district signed with the University of California – Merced that drained another at least $1.75 million from the budget. District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, who helped lead the contract agreement, also happens to retain a paid position at UC – Merced at the same time he serves as superintendent, which seems like a huge conflict of interest. The contract is for establishing a new system to collect and share data on students transitioning from high school to college to “reduce barriers” to college and reduce placement in college remediation classes. Worthy goals for sure, but it’s so far not specified what this new “system” entails and what could be long-term costs to the district.

If you can do the math, spending corrections teachers want to see corrected in the budget may or may not close the deficit gap. But their arguments certainly refute the administration’s claim that outlays resulting from the new contract are solely to blame for budget shortfalls. And the district’s stonewalling on negotiations further undermines its legitimacy in the negotiation.

Fisher says their action is a measured response to the district’s failure to live up to its part of the bargain. Schools will close for one day only and teachers will be mindful of how their actions could be perceived should the district proceed toward insolvency and state takeover.

Nevertheless, he contends the stakes are high if Sacramento teachers don’twalk out. Based on recent conversations he has had with teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland, who both won big concessions from districts after their strikes, he believes that should the district succeed in steamrolling teachers and reneging on its obligations to a signed contract, it will give districts elsewhere a green light to do the same. He is probably right.

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  1. flora

    The school admin spent the money on themselves and now claim there’s no money left to pay for the teachers’ contract salaries obligation? Well, isn’t that special.

    1. Joe Well

      A bloated, parasitic administration has long been the bane of New York City public schools amd it looks like a generalized phenomenon. Administrators are also largely responsible for skyrocketing university tuition.

      Another case of the professional class exploitating everyone else. It’s not just the billionaires.

      1. Stanley Dundee

        Thanks, Joe Well:

        Another case of the professional class exploitating everyone else. It’s not just the billionaires.

        The billionaires couldn’t keep it together without the support of their loyal minions in the professional class.

  2. ambrit

    If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that this school district had been taken over by a hedge fund. The symptoms are eerily similar. Looting of bottom line budgets to pay out-sized wages to management. Out sourcing of functions to Insider Influenced Parasite Entities. ‘Repurposing’ of employee benefit programs to benefit managements ‘bottom line.’ Excessive expansion of the numbers of management employees.
    In short, Neoliberal Education System Colonization.

  3. crittermom

    This article leaves me seething! Is there no oversight of the money in relation to the contract by someone other than the (thieving) administration?
    Of course not. It seems ever since the mtg fraud began 11 years ago, the new norm is that contracts/laws are made to be broken if that benefits those making the big bucks, knowing the only ones who will be punished are those below them (by getting screwed). Greed prevails.

    So, they bleed the public school dry so it can be taken over by the state and… then become a charter school perhaps? With many of the same players benefitting?

    No. This is not a good precedent.
    If only we had a govt in place that would deny such activity regarding a public system using taxpayer dollars…

    My only disagreement with the article is this: “…questionable administrative decisions.”

    I don’t see anything ‘questionable’ about what’s happening.
    Rather, it’s blatantly obvious.
    And it needs to stop.

    I hope any future contracts in every district include clauses forbidding such increases for administration.
    And that we’ll have a govt that will enforce it.

    Yes, we must be coming up to an election year, as I have begun to dream again…

    1. Kuhio Kane

      Dream on. Politicking has evolved into a path for personal enrichment in a landscape of neoliberal hegemony. The slow beginnings of privatization began in earnest in the late 70’s and was well established toward the end of my teaching years last year.

      Now is the time to strike for a future for our communities and schools. What’s at stake is our lives under empire.

  4. Matthew G. Saroff

    They need to engage in a soft strike, and refuse to provide paperwork for the bullsh%$ jobs of most of the administrators. As noted in the article Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone? (paywalled) (DropBox PDF), you would suddenly find more time for teaching, and a whole bunch of administrators who would have NO work to do:

    Again, to return to my own experience: During the British student movement of 2010, which saw occupations in virtually every college protesting government plans to triple tuition fees, I struggled to figure out some way for my colleagues — every one of whom claimed passionate support for the movement — to chip in. Expecting them to do anything militant, even spending a day in one of the occupations, was out of the question. So I suggested a boycott of self-assessment exercises. Many of those were mandated by the government, but since direct government funding was being cut off anyway, why not simply refuse to carry them out? So I proposed that we scan each document that passed our desk for tell-tale vocabulary, keeping a tally of the words “quality,” “excellence,” “leadership,” “stakeholder,” and “strategic.” The moment the total passed five, we would tear up the document and throw it away.

    The more polite of my colleagues pretended I was joking. Most stared at me as if I were a lunatic.

    Since the increase in administrative staffing is being driven by the request for bullsh%$ data so that supervisors, who can then summarize them and pass them along to their bullsh%$ supervisors, if teachers declare that they will just teach, these people will suddenly find themselves with no work.

    What’s more, the people at the top will then see downward pressures on their own salaries and staffs, since their wages are driven by the number of people under them.

    As a bonus, teachers will have more time for, well, TEACHING because they will spend less time on bullsh%$ paperwork.

  5. Michael C,

    The bloating of administration pay and the expansion of it is the same problem at universities. It is one of the reasons (beside lack of union representation) that adjuncts throughout the US make poverty wages, have no security, and few if none benefits. We raise up and expand the bureaucrats while attacking and making poor those who are at the center of education, all to the disadvantage of students and their needs.

  6. Michael C,

    The bloating of administration pay and the expansion of it is the same problem at universities. It is one of the reasons (beside lack of union representation) that adjuncts throughout the US make poverty wages, have no security, and few if none benefits. We raise up and expand the bureaucrats while attacking and making poor those who are at the center of education, all to the disadvantage of students and their needs.

  7. The Rev Kev

    I’d say that this was a declaration of war by the district administration on the teachers. Deliberately going out of their way to spend the money on pay rises for administrators and the like is a point of proof in bad faith negotiations. If those teachers buckle and give way to the district administration, then I can guarantee that there will be a lot more worse coming down the pipeline. I think that the only course of action is to make life hell for those administrators while getting the public on their side. I would not be waiting for the State to take action as people are still waiting on the State to take action on another bunch of Sacramento administrators.

    1. Kilgore Trout

      Agreed. Teachers need to document and disseminate to the public/voters the growth in admin. and costs, and details on scope of reneging on agreement, via purpose-driven website. Getting parents involved and supportive of teachers vs admin is key to winning. Teachers alone, not so much.

      1. Code Name D

        For all the good it will do. Who will care about such evidence? I doubt the state house will care, the fed education department certainly doesn’t care, the press won’t touch it, the courts will rule in favor of the adminstration dispite it.

        1. Joe Well

          Umm…because all the institutions you just mentioned are in the early stages of a probably terminal crisis of legitimacy and public opinion is going to become much more important in that void?

  8. Adam Eran

    That culture of entitlement is rampant in many places (cf. CalPERS, for one example). What’s awful is the lack of reporting by the local paper (the Bee). This article puts them to shame.

  9. Kris Alman

    The contract with U.C. Merced is not only a dubious contract as it relates to potential conflicts of interest, but begs the question of how student data is repurposed as another tool for surveillance capitalists.

    Who will be arbiters of governmental and commercial codes of conduct when Silicon Valley offers predictive value from all this data exhaust to “personalize” education?

    Google Experimenting With New Cloud Storage, Artificial Intelligence Initiative for K-12

    Google is starting to provide cloud storage for K-12 districts, helping them warehouse the massive amounts of data they collect on their students, then offering artificial intelligence-as-a-service to help districts analyze the information and use it to generate visualizations, recommendations, and predictions… It’s also unclear how the new effort will address potentially significant privacy concerns, including questions over how participating districts will comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA, as the nation’s main student-data-privacy law is commonly known, requires that districts maintain “direct control” of students’ educational records, and that parents be given the opportunity to review and amend those records.

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