Ramifications from Sac City Unified teacher strike persist with lost instructional days

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By Ethan Machado, C. K. McClatchy High School

Among all the COVID craziness that happened last year, some may have already forgotten about the teacher strike that shut down Sacramento City Unified District schools campuses for nearly two weeks. 

While the strike may be over and a new school year has already begun, the ramifications of the eight instructional days lost still remain a significant problem. 

To recap, the strike timeline began on March 23. This was the first official day of the strike and all Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) campuses closed for what many hoped would only be a short time. 

The issues were, according to a Capitol Public Radio article by Janelle Salanga, mostly non compensation complaints. “Teachers and staff cite an ongoing staffing shortage, which they say has resulted in overcrowded classrooms and buses, and therefore unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, as the reasons for their strike.”

From March 23 to April 3, the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) and the school district went back and forth in negotiations in an effort to resolve the situation. Finally, late on a Sunday night word went out that students could return to school on Monday, April 4. 

With the conclusion of the strike SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar wrote in a statement “The agreements balance the needs of the students and employees through the use of one-time funds and ongoing spending that we hope to manage successfully in the near future. ”

The eight-day teacher strike ultimately resulted in SCUSD students losing more than 2,400 minutes of instructional time. 

“That lost learning time was compounded by two years in which students lost significant time in the classroom due to COVID,” said Brian Heap, chief communications officer for the district. “The cumulative effect of lost classroom time has clearly resulted in students experiencing learning retention challenges.”

Even with the strike resolved, and students returning back to school, the pertinent problem remained: how to make up the eight days of lost instructional time during the strike. 

Heap stated, “Once the strike ended Sac City Unified engaged in good faith efforts to reach an agreement with our labor partners on how to recover the instructional time for our students.”

Heap said the district presented a total of five proposals to the SCTA and while there appeared to be an initial general agreement for extending the 2021-22 academic year to make up for lost time, differences on how to implement these extensions created conflicts ultimately forcing negotiations to a standstill. 

David Fisher, the president of SCTA, remains frustrated with how negotiations were handled. 

“They (the District) didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency. We had made some progress and then the district would add in some provisions that weren’t really related to making up the days, making the situation very very challenging.” 

Eventually, Fisher says the district “just bailed” on negotiations. 

Heap, however, outlined hope that negotiations will start back up again citing a successor contract signed in April

“SCUSD and SCTA are preparing to re-open negotiations on a future contract. The parties agreed to resume negotiations on reopeners on or before December 1, 2022, with the shared goal of reaching an agreement as soon as possible prior to the start of the 2023-2024 school year. The parties will meet not less than twice a month to make progress toward this goal. ”

Even with negotiations planned in the future the district still had to deal with strict penalties for not making up the lost instructional before the 2021-22 school year ended.

California’s Education Code requires public schools to provide 180 days of instruction and a minimum number of instructional minutes based on grade level. Since SCUSD did not comply with this requirement, SCUSD estimates that penalties can cost the district approximately $47 million dollars. 

Regarding how this fine could affect the district’s budget, Heap stated, “$47 million is a significant amount of money for a school district of our size. The figure represents nearly 10% of SCUSD’s $497.2 million unrestricted budget. For context, about 90% of all unrestricted funding goes to pay employee salaries and benefits, with the remaining money available for investment to support and create programs that directly benefit the diverse needs of our student population.”

Heap noted there is a possibility to mitigate these effects, as penalties can be reduced if the district takes steps to provide instructional time owed to students. 

To do this the district intends to pursue a waiver from the State Board of Education (SBE) per California Ed Code 46206. If the waiver is approved, SCUSD must make up sixteen days of instructional time which is twice the number of days students missed during the strike (eight).

“Based on our research and discussions with the State Board of Education, we believe that we are eligible for approval of the SBE waiver so long as we submit an acceptable bell schedule and calendar as part of the application process,” Heap said. 

Before any change to school and work calendars can be finalized an agreement must be reached between SCUSD and its labor partners.

Fisher mentions he approves of the district’s pursuit of a waiver in concept; meaning he supports the attempt to avoid a fine and all the complications that come with one of this size, but he still remains disappointed that this situation was not resolved during negotiations last year. 

Before a waiver can be submitted, the state must first audit the SCUSD’s instructional days and minutes to make a formal determination that the district did not meet state requirements. If this determination is made, a fine will be imposed and the district will begin the process of seeking a waiver to reduce the penalty.

As things stand now, Fisher said the district has yet to provide SCTA with a clear outline of its plans. “We’re ready to connect to negotiate and talk to them,” he stated.

When asked about the future of this situation Heap clarified that, “The district has no plans to add more days to the current 2022-23 academic calendar. Once the audit and penalty process as outlined above has concluded, the district will decide on an appropriate course of action to recover lost learning time and reduce the penalty for not providing the required number of days and minutes of instruction.”