SCUSD isn’t going broke–it’s broken. We know how to fix it.
By Lori Jablonski
Recently, the Bee reported that community leaders called on Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) officials and the teachers’ union “to work together in creating a distance-learning plan and preventing the cash-strapped district from going insolvent.” It hasn’t happened and this is why.
Quite simply, SCUSD isn’t “going broke” but it is broken.
Since August 2018, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and Board President Jessie Ryan have repeatedly and falsely claimed that SCUSD is on the brink of a state takeover. In May 2020, district leaders claimed it would end the year with a $5.9 million deficit.
But six weeks later, after the 2019-20 finances were tallied, SCUSD reported a $23 million surplus and a reserve fund of $93 million—nine times higher than the minimum required by the state. It was the biggest reserve fund in SCUSD history.
District leaders are projecting for 20-21 that SCUSCD will face a deficit of $26.4 million. Meanwhile, they are parking $101.3 million of their $640-million budget in “books and supplies.” SCUSD spent a fraction, $11 million, on the same budget line in 19-20. This “creative accounting,” which has been going on for years, deceives the community and deprives students of much needed services.
SCUSD has failed to properly report its finances for the past eight years and committed numerous jaw-dropping accounting errors. In the spring of 2019, for example, district administrators failed to count the enrollment at five schools, which amounted to an $8-million-per-year mistake. Based on this accounting error, the school board laid off 400 staff, including 175 teachers.
Michael Fine, a top finance official in state education, has said that he has “no confidence” in the district’s financial data. At the same time the school board presented a troubled financial picture to the public, it rewarded the superintendent with pay increases resulting in a salary nearly double the governor’s pay.
This past spring, the pandemic-related distance-learning rollout was a disaster. Many students had trouble connecting and faced a prolonged shortage of Chromebooks. When teachers offered to provide assistance to students and families, the school board responded by having the superintendent send a “cease and desist” letter threatening to sue any educator who provided technical advice to students and parents.
Faced with a return to distance learning this fall, more than 200 educators--on their own time, with input from 1,000 other teachers—developed a comprehensive distance-learning plan.
In contrast, SCUSD assigned two administrators with no distance-learning instructional experience to come up with their own directives. SCUSD demanded more standardized testing and more screen time than any of the surrounding districts, which would have been especially counter-productive, even harmful, for the youngest learners. The administration appeared to be more concerned about how its program looked on paper than how it worked in practice, a trend criticized by Carl Pinkston of the Black Parallel School Board as quoted by the Bee: “The district has not been honest and truthful with the public and itself about its historical failure to provide quality education for all kids.”
Distance learning won’t last forever. The Sacramento City Teachers Association and district officials have begun discussing when and how to return safely to school. But if SCUSD continues to ignore the input of thousands of educators about what our students need, both academically and in terms of health and safety, negotiations about a return to the classroom will be as difficult as earlier negotiations.
Who can trust district leaders who repeatedly deceive the public, manipulate district finances, and disregard the input of educators? We can fix this -- the place to start is with the upcoming election for school board members.
Lori Jablonski teaches government at CK McClatchy High School. She has taught in SCUSD for 20 years.