By Srishti Prabha | OBSERVER Correspondent

The new signage changes Peter Burnett Elementary to Suy:u Elementary School. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER
The new signage changes Peter Burnett Elementary to Suy:u Elementary School. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

The 2023-24 school year in Sacramento accompanies a series of transitions: an end to a year-long negotiation between the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento City Teachers Association, a search for a new superintendent, a shift in priorities for the district and a change to historically racist school names.

Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento City Teachers Association reach consensus

Following strikes by the teachers and employees of the district in 2022, the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento City Teachers Association re-opened contract negotiations on 2022-23 wages, paid professional days and more. 

“There was not a lot going on under [previous Superintendent] Jorge Aguilar,” said Nikki Milevsky, the president of the teachers association. 

Milevksy explained that under past leadership, outside consultants were brought in to bargain with the teachers’ union and obstructed direct communication with the district’s staff. Under Interim Superintendent Lisa Allen, the district’s Chief Business Officer and Chief Academic Officer, among others, were at the bargaining table. 

“We have been looking for a collaborative employer relationship for a long time, and that had really been impossible under prior leadership,” confirmed Milevsky. “Long-term educator Lisa Allen has made a big change in how the district has approached working with us. We think that has made all the difference in the world.”

Embracing the newfound partnership, the district and the union released a joint statement on the agreement reached this week. 

The joint statement “is going to further showcase how we are really trying to work together and turn a new leaf,” said Jasjit Singh, trustee for the Sacramento City Unified School Board. He ran on a platform advocating for labor union advocacy and is excited to see the two parties building a positive rapport.  

The parties have agreed to a 10% increase in salaries for union members, which also applies retroactively to the 2022-23 school year. An additional 6% salary increase will be given to educators who provide critical services, such as special education teachers, education audiologists, school nurses, social workers and school psychologists. 

Additionally, daily substitute teacher rates were more than doubled to $355 per day and three days of paid professional development were added to the work calendar for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years.

Our proposal was based on increases in funding that the district receives,” said Milevsky. “I think we compromised, worked together and came down to something that would work well.”

Singh said the increases in salaries and benefits should attract more talent to Sacramento, potentially closing the gap on teacher shortages in the district. 

“We had folks who are traveling to Elk Grove and Natomas because they’re paying, in some cases, much higher from Sacramento,” said Singh. He hopes that the new contracts “will keep people in their local schools.”

Along with being a union representative, Milevsky is a school psychologist and has witnessed the impact of the credentialed teacher shortage: “We’ve had hundreds of students without teachers in the past years. Our students would go to school and be housed in the cafeteria for the day or for the period”

She said that the new salaries will make the “district competitive in recruiting and retaining teachers that match the diversity of our students.”

The school board will vote to ratify the agreement reached by the district and the union  at their next meeting on September 7. But Singh noted that the conversations with the teachers’ union are far from over. Upcoming discussions will address 2023-24 and 2024-25 salaries, reduction in class size and internal job transfers. 

As the search for a new superintendent continues, an interim leads the district

School board, district administration, and Miwok/Nisenan representative cut the ribbon at the newly renamed Suy:u Elementary School. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER
School board, district administration, and Miwok/Nisenan representative cut the ribbon at the newly renamed Suy:u Elementary School. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar stepped down in June. Progress has been slow-moving on the hunt for someone to fill the superintendent role. The district’s school board is leading the hiring process, which involves choosing a recruitment firm, creating a job posting and evaluating applicants. 

Trustee Singh confirmed that the school board is committed to seeking input from the community and will host discussions with parents and neighbors on required job qualifications for the next superintendent prior to releasing a job posting. 

He said their proposed timeline will take close to a year, with the hope that the new superintendent will be in place for the 2024-25 school year without much disruption to students. 

“It’s a reasonable ask to have a permanent superintendent by the next school year,” Singh said. 

Lavinia Phillips, who serves as first Vice President of the school board, said she is eager to appoint a superintendent who will reflect the needs of the community in their goals for the district.

“We get to select a person who will not only honor our community but also work to activate their values and their visions in a district that’s teaching their children,” Phillips said.

This school year will be guided by interim superintendent Lisa Allen who has been an educator and administrator in the district for 28 years. In her short time in the interim position, she has already led successful labor union negotiations. 

“I think that Lisa is wonderful, and [in her prior role] as deputy superintendent, she was already the one who interacted most deeply with staff on a day-to-day basis,” Singh explained. “I do know that there’s a lot of excitement, both from community members and from staff, about having her in this position.”

Singh and Milevsky are one of many who praise Allen’s efforts in the district. Mark Harris, the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion monitor, who has worked closely with Allen, feels “the district is in great hands.”

Priorities for the upcoming school year

The district, the school board and the DEI monitor are working together to set a focused agenda for the school year. Allen, who sent her comments over email, shared a few heavy-hitting items on her to-do list.

“Sac City Unified is moving forward and we remain centered on educating students and making sure that they are safe, fed, and healthy when they are in our care,” she wrote.

In May of this year, Sacramento City Unified reached a settlement with the Black Parallel School Board over special education practices for all students, but more specifically for Black students with disabilities.

“In September, SCUSD will be holding community meetings with the Black Parallel School Board, so that we can inform the public on what this agreement means for their students,” Allen wrote.

This will also be one of DEI monitor Harris’ primary concerns and involves preparing to hear anecdotal evidence and, eventually, propose policies. 

“I’m the proud parent of a Black child who has a physical disability and he has ascended through [the education system],” Harris revealed. “I want to remind people that diversity, equity and inclusion should embrace those who have some form of disability.”

Along with improved practices in the workplace, Allen also said a top priority was closing achievement gaps.

The most recent assessment results released by Sacramento City Unified indicated that in some subjects, the achievement gap — a term used to indicate if students are meeting grade-level standards — has widened between students of color and white students. In some cases, the gap remains unchanged, but students of color are not meeting the standards at the same rate as their white counterparts.

The district continues to propose their multi-tiered system of support, which is an individualized assessment of a student’s needs, to address the issue. This approach, however, has not yielded improvement in test scores over the past two years.

Sacramento City Unified’s school board is pushing for novel approaches. Trustee Phillips wants the community to be at the core of all decision-making. 

“We’re kind of starting over with more of a community focus and that is something that we have not had enough of,” Phillips commented. “We need to bring their voices to the table, and until that happens, we are not doing our job as a board of education.”

Singh echoed Phillips’ sentiments: “My priorities are for us to continue shifting the culture and the dynamics of how we function so that we continue to come from a space of collaboration and trust building.”

Singh and Phillips said they aspire to break the silos that the local school board has traditionally inhabited. Both have also worked with the teachers’ union to formalize the community schools agreement – a grant that facilitates participation between schools and their neighboring communities. 

Changing historically racist school names

Cali Kalte Crew performs a tribal dance to rejoice in the new school name. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER
Cali Kalte Crew performs a tribal dance to rejoice in the new school name. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Suy:u Elementary School, previously Peter Burnett, hosted a celebratory event this week in honor of its name change — the only school, out of three with name changes, to hold an event. 

A movement that began by the Black Parallel School Board in 2013 finally materialized in June of this year when the school board voted to change the names of three schools: in addition to Suy:u Elementary, Sutter Middle School became Miwok Middle and Kit Carson is now Umoja International Academy.

Miwok Middle and Suy:u Elementary pay homage to the Native ancestors of the land, while Umoja is a nod to African American ancestors. The name changes were prompted by racist backstories of the killing and enslavement of Native and African people by Peter Burnett, John Sutter and Kit Carson.

“When you rename schools, we’re not erasing history,” said Jesus Tarango, the Chairman of Wilton Rancheria and part of the Miwok-Nisenan tribe, at the Suy:u Elementary event. “We love the idea of allowing the first inhabitants of this land to be able to come in and give a name.”

However, the district had not been so open to the dialogue in years past, recalled Carl Pinkston of the Black Parallel School Board in a recent interview. 

“The three schools [that] are in predominantly white neighborhoods…and so they were very protective of their school name,” said Pinkston. “Really what broke all of this was the Black Lives Matter movement and Stephon Clark.”

It took 10 years, persistence by the Black Parallel School Board and the current administration to get the name change on the docket.

“The name change recognizes that we have a commitment, but now we actually have to do the real work, so that we can say we are doing everything in our power to ensure that this is the type of environment we’re creating for our kids,” trustee Singh.

The Suy:u Elementary celebration was marked by a tribal dance performed by Miwok and Nisenan dancers of the Cali Kalte Crew. The district said that the permanent signage with the three schools’ new names will be installed by the end of September.