Sacramento teachers’ strike isn’t about money, it’s about respect


A few weeks ago, Sacramento teacher Kacie Go had 56 children for second term.

That day, there were 109 students at his school in eighth through 12th grade who did not have an instructor due to staffing shortages. So she crowded the students into her room and made it work, but “it’s not sustainable,” she says.

No kidding.

Go told the story to me with hundreds of other teachers and support staff Tuesday morning in the parking lot of an empty high school, as “We’re not going to take it” blared from loudspeakers and mostly female workers gathered for the sixth day of a strike that has closed schools in the Capitol city.

Like Go, these teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teaching assistants are tired of being asked to do more with less. It’s a problem that goes beyond the Sacramento City Unified School District, with 48,000 students in 81 schools. Frustration among teachers and school workers is rampant across California — pushed to breaking point by the pandemic and a shortage of more than 11,000 credentialed teachers and thousands of support staff as the state attempts to expand pre-kindergarten and bringing 10,000 mental health counselors to campuses.

From protests against school closures in Oakland to the general strike in Sacramento, those who work in our schools tell us they cannot do this work under the conditions we impose. These include poor pay, a sometimes vicious political backlash to COVID-19 safety measures, witch-hunt type scrutiny around hot topics, a mental health crisis, the reality of too few people doing the job. and the general disrespect of a society that swears it loves teachers and values ​​education, but invests little in it. Worrying about school shooters, once a pressing concern for educators and parents, is no longer even a top three issue.

It’s the same story unfolding in hundreds of other districts, not just in California, but across the country. Minneapolis teachers just ended a 14-day strike that shared some of the same pay and support issues, underscored by the same teacher grief that we’re talking about a good play on supporting public education but that we do not always carry out actions. Minneapolis Teachers’ Federation chapter president Greta Callahan summed it up, sounding like she could stand in Sacramento.

“We shouldn’t have [have] went on strike to win one of those things, one of those essential supports for our students, but we did it,” she said.

Go, who was a teacher for 20 years and earned a master’s degree along the way — which took her to the top of the district pay scale at just over $100,000 a year — believes she loses about $500 a day during the walkout.

But she’s more worried about support staff like Katie Santora, a cafeteria worker who was also on the picket line.

Santora is the main nutrition services worker at a high school, which is expected to produce 1,500 meals a day between breakfast and lunch – with a staff of nine (although they started the year with just five) . Most work part-time because the district won’t pay them stipends and they earn about minimum wage.

Katie Santora, left, and her daughter Melissa both work in public school cafeterias in Sacramento. They are on strike for better staffing and higher wages, among other concerns.

(Anita Chabria/Los Angeles Times)

Santora, with 13 years in the district, earns $18.98 an hour in what is essentially a management role. She is in charge of the order, the planning, the reception and the proper functioning of the joint.

On the last day before the strike, this included making popcorn chicken bowls for lunch. What does it look like? Five 30-pound cases of chicken, baked, 22 bags of potatoes, boiled and mashed, corn and gravy – all assembled after his staff finished making steak burritos and egg bowls scrambled. Did I mention that each student has to take a piece of fruit, which means washing about 1,700 apples?

Santora says high school kids are the “most misunderstood” people on the planet, hovering between child and adult. Their well-being, she says, depends on being fed so “their bellies don’t growl in class” and seeing a friendly face when they walk into her cafeteria. She likes to deliver both.

“When they cross the line, I like to tell them, ‘Thank you for having lunch with me,’” she says.

But the money is not enough to pay his bills. Four or five nights a week, she spends about an hour at home before heading to her second job loading grocery bags for Whole Foods delivery drivers. She works two jobs just to pay for the privilege of doing the one she loves.

Go, the teacher, feels the difficulties differently. One of her twin daughters recently had a “pretty bad concussion,” she said, but Go felt like she couldn’t stay home with her. If she did, one of her co-workers would likely be stuck with a crowded classroom — and all the other unofficial jobs she has to do on a daily basis, from surrogate parent to police officer to relationship counselor when her students teenagers the hormones race. Replacements are hard to find, she thinks, because the salary – $224 a day – is not competitive with other less stressful jobs.

“Subs don’t have it easy,” Go said. “Why would you do that when you could go to In-N-Out and wonder if it’s animal-style or not for the same amount of money?

Unions involved in the Sacramento strike say there are hundreds of vacancies in the district in virtually every job. Nikki Milevsky, a school psychologist and vice president of the teachers’ union, estimates there are 250 vacancies for teachers and 400 for classified staff — in a district with 2,069 teachers and 1,656 classified staff. The fact that classified staff and teachers walked out shows the depth of the problems in Sacramento – it’s unusual for the two to strike at the same time, and it forced schools to close because only administrators were left to watch the children.

The teachers’ union says 10,000 students don’t have a permanent instructor, and on some days up to 3,000 don’t even have a substitute. About 547 children who have signed up for independent study have yet to receive a teacher, which means they are not learning anything.

The district says it has lost 127 certified employees and 293 classified positions. Take the difference as you like, but the district does not dispute that it is in crisis of personnel.

Sacramento teachers want a pay raise to make the district more competitive in hiring. Currently, some surrounding districts pay more but have fewer benefits. (Please don’t make me tell you that health care is a right, not a privilege.) Teachers want the district to drop a proposal to require current and retired teachers to pay hundreds more dollars to keep a non-HMO health plan. The district says it has made an offer of a salary increase and recruiting bonus and a one-year stipend to make up for the health plan issue.

From there, it becomes contentious. Teachers dismiss the district’s offer as low and say there is money available to do better, but not the will to invest it in staffing. The district says teachers have to compromise because they can’t afford all of their demands.

For days there were no negotiations. State Superintendent. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond tried to bring everyone to the table, only to be rebuffed by the district. Back home instead of in the classroom, my eighth grade student from Sacramento Schools ate lots of chocolate chip pancakes and watched “Turning Red” on repeat.

There is no end in sight. Although negotiations with both unions have resumed, the closure is another blow to already anxious and stressed parents and families. The last time my daughter had a normal school year was in fifth grade. So I understand the frustration, and even the anger, of parents that schools are closed again — and the resentment of parents across the state who are fed up with the problems with schools, many of which predate the pandemic.

But I went to the strike line three times and I can tell you this: it’s not about money for these teachers. You can roll your eyes at unions all you want, but these teachers and support staff want their schools to work, for their students, for themselves, and for our collective future. Because democracy depends on an educated population and education is a right. And because they are educators and invest in our children.

Go wants to do nothing but teach, even if that sometimes means 56 children. Even if it means losing $500 a day and going on strike. Even if it means driving some people crazy to improve schools.

“I love it,” she said. “I do.”

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