By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER

Hasan McWhorter, second vice president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, says the strike is necessary as there’s been no progress on negotiations with SCUSD dating back to July 2019. McWhorter is a Social Science teacher at Met High School. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

After months of failed negotiations between labor unions and the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), teachers and staff are forgoing pay in an open-ended strike that began Wednesday, March 23, forcing the district to close approximately 80 campuses.

Teachers and school staff wore red as they marched in picket lines, holding signs that demanded the district address the severe staffing shortages and COVID-19 safety protocols. 

The Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) is not alone in the strike. The SEIU Local 1021 —the union representing classified employees such as janitorial staff and bus drivers —is striking alongside SCTA for the first time in history.

The week before the strike, the school board released a statement urging the union to go back to the bargaining table; Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar also issued a statement that said the strike would be harmful to students.

“It is unconscionable that SCTA is threatening a strike,” wrote Aguilar. “This is especially hurtful and harmful to our most vulnerable students who count on our schools as safe havens.”

Hasan McWhorter, who is the Second Vice President for SCTA, said the strike is necessary as there’s been no progress on negotiations dating back to July 2019, when the previous salary and benefits agreement lapsed.  

According to McWhorter, the biggest misconception is that teachers “just want more money.”  He said that the district has used its power to control the narrative.

“Teachers are on the frontlines every day because we care about students,” McWhorter said. “There are thousands of students who go without teachers every day — we have to hire and train more staff.”

In order to recruit and retain teachers, SCTA is advocating for competitive pay with a competitive healthcare package.

McWhorter, who is also a social science teacher at The Met Sacramento High School (The Met), said the district should’ve used the one-time allocation of $320 million in state and federal funding to hire teachers; every day there are 3,000 students in the district who go without even a substitute teacher and nearly 600 students waiting to be enrolled in Independent Study, McWhorter said.

Cal Middle School security guard Tyrone Howard, who has been at the school for 20 years, shows his support for the strike. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

“If they were to use that funding properly, they would have used it to hire qualified people,” McWhorter said. “Some schools are forced to have substitutes teaching critical subjects like foreign language and science.”

McWhorter explained that the staffing shortage disproportionately affects students of color as schools that are majority Black and brown have had a more difficult time securing substitutes.

“Since January, Phoebe Hearst Elementary — which has a median household income of $106,000 — has had all of their requests for substitutes filled,” said McWhorter, who noted that Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary, which is located in Oak Park and serves a 74.7% Black and brown student population, has only had roughly a third of their requests filled.

Manuel Favela, an Ethnic Studies teacher at The Met, said that while the strike is necessary, the school closures are most difficult for parents of elementary-aged students who count on the childcare provided by in-person instruction. 

“Thinking short term, the strike is going to be hard for those working families who have to keep their children at home,” Favela said. “But if this brings in more teachers, it’s going to be better for everyone in the long run.”

As a new father, Favela has personally seen how the staffing shortage affects working families. After the birth of his son in January,  it was difficult for him to get substitutes during his paternity leave.

“I let them know weeks ahead of time but we weren’t able to get coverage for all of the days,” Favela said. “When it gets that rough, you have to corral multiple classes into the cafeteria and have two student teachers supervise the kids.”

In addition to the staffing shortage, the union has said the district failed to provide adequate staffing to address COVID-related issues for the 2021-22 school year.

Josue Guzman, a science teacher at The Met, said the district has asked teachers to take on additional responsibilities to implement COVID-19 safety protocols.

“The district was pushing COVID testing hard but we didn’t even have health aides at my school,” Guzman said. He noted that health aides, who typically assist school nurses, were promised to every school site but the teachers had to “tell the students to go to the district to get tested.”

SCUSD officially declared an impasse on the COVID-related negotiations in December; the impasse led to a fact-finding process where neutral mediators recommended the district improve compensation and working conditions. 

Superintendent Aguilar wrote in a press release that the district was unable to fully concur with the recommendations. 

“Despite concerns about how some of the recommendations could impact our long term fiscal stability, we are committed to finding solutions that meet the needs of our students and staff,” wrote Aguilar.

McWhorter disagreed and said that SCUSD is stronger financially than it has ever been in his 20-year career with the district. 

Cal Middle School teachers and support staff led by union rep Preston Jackson and Mark Davis stand on strike as bargaining deals have failed to be agreed upon between the district and unions.

“The district doesn’t have a budget problem — they have a priorities problem,” McWhorter said. “We’re short teachers and we continue to lose teachers. That is the problem.”

The night before the strike, at approx 11:45 p.m., the district issued a press release that said they are offering teachers a 2% raise, 100% healthcare coverage through Kaiser, and one-time bonuses.  

Although the district has informed the media of these offers, SCTA said they’d like to discuss these offers at the negotiation table. Until then, the teachers and staff have resolved to stay on the picket line until their demands are met.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.