Amid fiscal turmoil, Sac Unified faces possible state takeover

A teacher with her elementary school class in the Sacramento City Unified School District. (SCUSD photo)

As the Sacramento City Unified School District faces a $35 million budget shortfall and a possible takeover by the state, the teachers’ union is pointing fingers of blame at district administration.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association wrote a lengthy letter earlier this month to newly elected state Superintendent Tony Thurmond asking for the California Department of Education to investigate potential misuse of public dollars and a potential conflict of interest involving Superintendent Jorge Aguilar.

The union also requested investigation into Jorge Aguilar’s acceptance of $2,391 in honoraria for appearances at outside agencies.

“Taken as a whole, it’s a pattern of questions we have,” said David Fisher, the teacher’s union president. “We want a comprehensive investigation that won’t just look at one individual thing out of context.”

The action has received the support of Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, who has called for a state audit to get to the bottom of the crisis.

But Alex Barrios, chief communications officer for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said all the accusations are a “distraction tactic” intended to shift focus away from budget challenges.

“The District has now had an opportunity to thoroughly review SCTA’s allegations,” he said in an email statement. “We have compiled evidence demonstrating that SCTA’s allegations have no merit. We look forward to presenting our evidence to (California Department of Education) as soon as we receive direction from them on whether they will consider these claims and how we should respond.”

The union’s letter outlined several areas for investigation, including a $6 million vacation buyout program for administrators.

No school board members responded to email requests for comment.

The California Department of Education is still in the process of reviewing the letter, said Cynthia Butler, the department’s spokesperson.

The union’s letter outlined several areas for investigation, including:

–Aguilar’s second part-time job at UC Merced and a subsequent data-sharing agreement between the district and UC Merced that would pay the university $1.75 million over four years.

–A $6 million vacation buyout program for administrators.

The letter also requested investigation into Aguilar’s acceptance of $2,391 in honoraria for appearances at outside agencies, potential misuse of funds at Hiram Johnson High School and the principal of New Technology High School holding a second job and not keeping up with his full-time responsibilities at the high school.

Union leaders said they had no idea that Aguilar, who has a $295,000 annual salary, had a second job at UC Merced or that the school district had any relationship with the college until they started looking into the matter after their union members started asking them why they were being asked to do work for the university.

They were surprised to learn that Aguilar had a 5 percent position as UC Merced associate vice chancellor for educational and community partnerships. They said Aguilar never publicly revealed his position.

Aguilar’s UC Merced duties “do not include direct supervision over any projects connected to the Sacramento City Unified School District.” — James Leonard

The matter became more concerning when they discovered that the school district had entered into a data-sharing agreement for $1.75 million over four years. “Mr. Aguilar seems to have some role in administering the contract for both employers,” the letter said, adding that it was hard to tell which side he was representing.

James Leonard, a spokesperson for UC Merced, said Aguilar works about eight hours per month for the university “on broad policy concepts connected to the equity and access mission of our K-12 outreach and partnership programs.” He receives $8,598 as an annual salary, which amounts to 5 percent of a full-time salary. Barrios, the school district spokesman, said Aguilar uses the money to pay for health benefits from the university, thus saving the district from having to pay for them.

Leonard said his UC Merced duties “do not include direct supervision over any projects connected to the Sacramento City Unified School District.” He also said the school district has not paid any money to UC Merced and that “there are no plans for funds to be exchanged between SCUSD and UC Merced.”

The university is providing “in-kind” technical assistance and programming.

When asked about documents showing an “encumbered payment” from the district to UC Merced, Leonard responded that the school board approved it and set aside money in the budget, but the actual disbursement of funds was contingent on the execution of a fee-for-service agreement that was ultimately never drafted.

The data-sharing agreement gave the district the ability to monitor graduation and college course requirements for all students, the ability to send college eligibility packets to every 12th grade student in the district and more, Barrios said. The university is providing “in-kind” technical assistance and programming, along with the assignment of a full-time programmer, policy analyst and statistician to the district, Leonard said.

Union leaders say this shows they were right to ask questions about the arrangement. “Maybe we just saved the district $1.75 million,” said David Fisher, the union president.

The district’s decision to offer a vacation buyout to some administrators in 2017-18 was concerning to the union in light of the looming financial crisis. “To choose right now to pay out a liability that may or may not occur for 10-20 years is like paying off your entire mortgage right now instead of feeding or clothing your family,” said Fisher.

Union leaders questioned why the district couldn’t have given the administrators time to take their vacation over a certain period rather than shell out cash.  The buyout cost the district an estimated $6 million, they say.

“Why would anybody oppose more sunlight?” — David Fisher.

When asked about the concerns, district spokesman Barrios pointed to a statement by the superintendent on the district website that said vacation is considered wages under California law and the district is legally required to provide it to employees. “If employees do not use their vacation time, the district is obligated by law to eventually pay out unused vacation time,” Aguilar said in the statement.

Aguilar said allowing unused vacation time to accrue is expensive as employees’ salary continues to rise with raises. After becoming superintendent in 2017, he ended the policy of allowing vacation to pile up and instituted a use it or lose it policy which stopped vacation hour accrual after a certain period. By doing so, he said he has saved the district $4 million in financial liability.

Fisher, the union leader, said one of the biggest problems is that the district has not been transparent and has been slow to provide answers to the union’s questions about finances.  He hopes an unbiased investigation from the California Department of Education will provide those answers.

“Why would anybody oppose more sunlight?” — David Fisher

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