Not even a full year after in-person learning resumed, one of the largest districts in Sacramento County is on the verge of shutting its doors again. A looming and “open-ended” labor strike on Wednesday, called by the teachers and support staff of Sacramento City Unified School District, is a disruption its 40,000 students and their families can’t afford.

District and union leaders have failed to agree on the same set of facts, let alone the necessary set of compromises to avert a strike and maintain the classroom instruction Sacramento children need and deserve.

District leaders say they’re trying to maintain solvency after years of deep budget cuts to fulfill contracts and avoid a state takeover, a reality evoked by numerous independent audits and the Sacramento County Office of Education. The Sacramento City Teachers Association and SEIU Local 1021, which represents classified workers, see it differently, pointing to $123 million in reserves, over a decade of surpluses and $320 million in COVID relief.

Meanwhile, the absence of a deal on critical COVID policies has exacerbated the impact of nationwide staffing shortages in Sacramento’s schools to an unconscionable level. About one-quarter of the district’s students lack a permanent teacher, and roughly 3,000 do not have an adequate substitute, according to the teachers’ union. Almost 600 students enrolled in independent study have not received a single day of instruction this year. Many students with disabilities and special needs aren’t getting services from appropriate specialists.

Maintenance workers, bus drivers, instructional aides, food service employees and other staff members are being overworked and spread thin, leading to plummeting morale for workers essential to functioning campuses.

If the district and unions fail to reach a deal, a competitive hiring environment could cause an exodus of teachers and employees to other districts, setting up an even worse shortage in the next school year.

The pandemic has been an unmistakable reminder of the communal fabric schools provide, sustaining education, child care and reliable food access for children. Many of the efforts families and teachers undertook to maintain those services during prolonged school closures were nothing short of heroic, despite the unequal realities that shaped how distance learning went for students in different households.

When schools finally reopened, the effects of shuttered classrooms became apparent: Disparate setbacks in learning, especially for Black, brown and underprivileged students; stunted social and emotional development; and unprecedented mental health challenges for teens. Teachers and school employees have had their hands full, to say the least, all while attempting to maintain their health and safety through surging COVID infections. So have district leaders trying to keep their schools afloat.

The turmoil within Sacramento City Unified is deeply entrenched, making harmony feel impossible. Financial missteps, leadership problems, labor strife and shrinking student enrollment have put the district on the brink of a state takeover.

Unfortunately, this contentious history has only hardened the positions of the district and its labor. Each side has become so consumed by member interests that compromise and collegiality barely register anymore. This is the fourth time in five years that a strike has been called.

There are 13 public school districts in Sacramento County, yet Sacramento City Unified is the only one that can’t broker a deal to keep children learning. A student population that is about 84% nonwhite, almost two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 17% English learners is constantly paying the price for adults’ mutual animus.

If the strike proceeds, district and union leaders share responsibility for failing tens of thousands of students and families. Sacramento needs school leaders who can put aside their differences and work together to honor the needs of students, who matter most.


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