Updated: Both unions settled with the district late Sunday night, achieving most of their goals. — Larry Ferlazzo
The question-of-the-week is:
What is happening with the Sacramento teacher and support-staff strike, and what that might mean for the rest of the country?
On Thursday, the seventh day of a strike by 4,000 employees of the Sacramento City Unified school district, 80 educators and classified-staff members from the Sacramento City Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 marched into the district offices cheered by over 1,000 other union members. They took over the building’s cafeteria and vowed not to leave until the district met and negotiated a contract with them.
This Sacramento strike and direct action was impacted by a number of unique local issues, including taking place in a district whose superintendent not only has refused to participate in a single bargaining session in the past three years and has even refused an invitation from the California state superintendent of public instruction to meet and discuss strike issues—but in a district that has so much money in its reserves that the state will require it to spend tens of millions of dollars of those funds.
At the same time, the conflict reflects growing tensions around the country centered on several key issues:
The Growing Shortage of Teachers, Substitutes, and Support Staff
The media are awash with stories about staff shortages. The Sacramento district is no different. There are unfilled teacher positions at just about every school; sub positions go unfilled, resulting in stressed staff having to cover classes during their free periods and/or 100 students sitting in an auditorium; and bus driver vacancies abound.
There are a number of ways to tackle these challenges, but one obvious strategy is to increase wages and benefits to make positions more attractive. This might obviously be a challenge for districts in financial distress but not one for districts like ours in states that generously fund schools.
Here in Sacramento, our district has recognized the need to increase wages (though not as much as we and a neutral “fact-finder” believe). However, in a move that makes many of us scratch our heads, district officials are actually proposing reducing health benefits that could result in out-of-pocket expenses approaching $1,000 monthly for many educators.
The Huge Amount of One-Time COVID-Related Funds
Districts across the country have received major infusions of cash from the federal government and, in some cases, from state coffers. Many are understandably concerned about taking on longer-term commitments with one-time monies.
A number of districts, including ours, are using small portions of these monies to provide “bonuses” or “stipends” to educators and staff in lieu of taking on additional permanent costs. And some districts, including ours, are using the monies one-time status as an excuse to not increase the salary scale for educators and classified staff (despite solid budget projections of increased permanent funds from state and local sources), while at the same time using it to fund salaries of high-level administrators.
In addition, some districts, including ours, appear to be in either a state of decisionmaking paralysis or mistakenly believe these funds should not be used to hire staff because they don’t want to do layoffs in the future if permanent funding can’t be found (despite, in our case, of assured future increased funding from the state). So, instead of providing well-paid positions to provide the help our students need now, they choose to hoard it.
Differing Views Of Power – And Who Should Have It
This issue appears to be the central one in many districts, and ours is no exception. A substantial number of school district leaders seem to view power as a finite pie—if they give up some, then they will have less. It’s a view I often experienced among decisionmakers during my 19-year community-organizing career prior to becoming a teacher 19 years ago.
But, as we taught then and as we need to teach school district leaders now, this is a mistaken view. Power is not a finite pie. It’s not a zero-sum game.
In fact, the more that power is distributed, the bigger the whole pie becomes. More opportunities are created, more ideas are shared, more leaders are developed, grander visions can be realized.
Our district is led by a superintendent with no (or hardly any) experience in the classroom and who has had nearly 95 percent of classified staff and teachers give him a formal vote of “no confidence.” In addition, 70 percent of administrators want to have a formal vote of no confidence in him.
He and the few school board members who choose to support him are indicative of not a small number of district leaders throughout the country who do not believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which means that the people closest to problems tend to have the best ideas on how to solve them.
District leaders with this mindset tend to believe that they are the smartest people in any room—that teachers, classroom aides, custodians, and even families of our students may not be as smart (or smarter) as they are about how to solve the challenges facing our communities.
Our strike, and the successful strikes earlier this month by our colleagues in Minneapolis and in Rohnert Park, Calif., stand for an alternative vision for what our schools can become—places that can emerge from the trauma of the pandemic and develop into stronger community institutions that are bottom-up and not just top-down ones.
To modify a popular saying, teacher and custodian and paraprofessional and bus driver and school secretary working conditions are student learning conditions.
As we’ve been chanting on the picket lines and at our rallies during these past seven days, “When we fight, kids win!”
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