By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER

Parent Aisha Wright said being a teacher is “one hell of a job — especially now.” Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Sacramento schools reopened Monday, April 4 marking the end of the strike of teachers and staff which forced Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) to close approximately 80 campuses on March 23, leaving 43,000 students out of school for eight school days.

The strike was suspended on Sunday, April 3 after SCUSD agreed to raise pay and improve health coverage for both the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) and classified employees union SEIU Local 1021. The competitive pay and healthcare packages aim to address the COVID-19 related staffing shortage which the labor unions cited as their top grievance.

After a weekend of negotiations, SCUSD issued a statement on the night of Sunday, April 3 announcing schools would reopen the very next day.

“We are overjoyed that our students can return to school tomorrow,”  wrote SCUSD Board of Education President Christina Pritchett. 

While the unions originally planned to only strike for three days, the back-and-forth negotiations with the district lasted 12 days — forcing students to miss more than a week of school. 

SCTA 2nd Vice President Hasan McWhorter said that strike ultimately “lasted as long as it should have lasted” as the labor unions were able to negotiate a 4% pay increase, two 3% one-time stipends, 100% health coverage through Kaiser and a 25% increase in the daily rate of substitutes who filled in for absent teachers during the 2021-22 school year. The agreement also offers increased professional development such as anti-racist training. 

Classified staff, such as janitorial workers and bus drivers represented by SEIU Local 1021, have been offered a 4% raise, two $3,000 one-time stipends, and enhanced dental and vision benefits to premier coverage plans.

“We were able to hit some benchmarks and negotiate pivotal things we were fighting for,” McWhorter said. “Considering the historical distrust, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The district and SCTA have had several run-ins in recent years. 

In 2017, Mayor Darrell Steinberg averted a teacher strike by negotiating an 11% raise over the course of three years; the teachers would eventually go on a one-day strike in April 2019 saying the district failed to better fund classrooms as outlined in the mayor-endorsed deal. 

Eight months after the one-day strike, a report from the California State Auditor released in December 2019 said that SCUSD would run out of money by the 2021-22 school year, citing increases in salaries and benefits that outpaced funding. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SCUSD received financial relief via a one-time allocation of $320 million in state and federal funding. 

While Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar said district expenses exceed the yearly revenue, McWhorter — who also teaches economics at The Met Sacramento High School — said that there is enough money in the budget to sustain the new compensation packages if the district reallocates funding.

“Most of the funding is categorical,” said McWhorter, explaining that funds from the state and/or federal government must be spent for a specific purpose. “About 10 years ago we had a surplus of $32 million we could only spend on facilities — so we started painting schools every summer.”

While the district and unions negotiated labor contracts, parents and students stayed home much longer than anticipated.

Conrad Crump, a parent, said that while he supports teachers, the strike is another example of the system failing students in a district that is 54.9% Black and brown.

“The strike felt like the pandemic all over again — which was not a good experience for my kids,” said Crump, whose 9th and 10th grade daughters attend C.K. McClatchy High School. “It’s unfortunate that the strike came at the expense of the kids who have already experienced so much learning loss.”

During the strike, the district provided pre-bagged meals at each school. As a working single father co-parenting his daughters with their working mother, Crump was unable to leave work to get the meals for his daughters. 

Hasan McWhorter, Teacher and SCTA 2nd Vic President meets at his school afte rthe strike comes to an end.

Crump’s daughters spent the strike at home, unattended, and with little school work to do; he said he was afraid his daughters were “checking out.”

“Each day the strike went on, the more I started to fear for my kids,” Crump said. “I started to question if the strike would affect the long-term health and vitality of our students. It’s sad the union had to handle it this way.”

Parent Aisha Wright said the district was to blame for jeopardizing the mental wellness of the students by not supporting the teachers.

“Being a teacher is one hell of a job — especially now,” Wright said. “Kids have been through a lot and they are angry. There is more bullying and fights on-campus — teachers have to manage all that while also being expected to teach.”

Although Wright’s 7th grade son stayed busy with an internship while California Middle School was closed, she was upset the district allowed the strike to go on for so long; she said the teachers’ demands “didn’t seem unrealistic,” adding that her daughter earned a “liveable wage” as a special education teacher in the private sector.

Wright’s daughter decided against working for SCUSD after a negative experience working as an instructional aide at the district.

“She told me the job was like being a ‘glorified babysitter,’’’ Wright said. “She felt the district underserved these students with disabilities … She was very upset about that so she left Sac Unified.”

Circumventing the continued loss of teachers amid the COVID-19 staffing shortage was the goal of SCTA’s negotiation. While the district has conceded to the demands of the labor unions, Pritchett said the district is still facing economic uncertainty. 

“The agreements reached with SCTA and SEIU are as generous as possible within the realistic fiscal constraints of our district’s budget,” wrote Pritchett. “The fact remains that education in California is underfunded.”

McWhorter said the district’s emphasis on underfunding is a “political guise.” He added that even though the strike has ended, the public still does not truly understand why it was necessary — he encouraged people to investigate the issues themselves.

“All of this is public information,” McWhorter said. “I encourage everyone to educate themselves — study everything. That’s what any good teacher would tell you.”

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.