Sacramento city schools are committed to equity, but finances are a struggle

Article By Jorge AguilarSpecial to the Sacramento Bee

When I became superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District a year ago, my goal was to achieve an educational vision that is anchored in equity, access and social justice that gives all students an equal opportunity to graduate with the greatest number of postsecondary options.

The moral imperative behind this vision could not be clearer. Inside and outside our schools, we have experienced events reflecting racial inequities: Students victimized by violence, the controversial McClatchy High science project, the Stephon Clark shooting and the finding that Sac City Unified suspends more African-American students than other districts in the region.

While the Board of Education, community stakeholders and I have begun laying the foundation to address these inequities and make Sac City Unified a high-performing district, the budget adopted in June had to address a $24 million shortfall.

This budget deficit threatens our ability to achieve our shared vision. Now more than ever, the district needs all stakeholders to collaborate on a long-term plan to balance our budget and stabilize costs.

This collaboration must be based on a shared understanding of our financial situation. First, we must acknowledge that though school districts are receiving more state money, our projected costs exceed these resources. For example, the state requires us to pay almost $50 million this year to cover pension costs for our employees. The cost of pensions and other obligations, by themselves, exceed our state revenues by $3 million.

Second, we must recognize that retaining quality educators and employees costs money. Historically, our strategy has been to offer full family health benefits and lifetime medical benefits. Today, it costs an average of $20,000 per employee annually for health benefits. Our unfunded liability for lifetime medical benefits is $619 million. We should be paying $54 million a year to cover this obligation, but have only made payments averaging $9 million for the last five years.

There will be critics who deny that Sac City Unified is financially strained. So I have commissioned an independent budget review and will be inviting district stakeholders to help design it. However, believing our financial challenges are real, the board and I have already reduced costs by $4.3 million, starting with reductions to our central office even though we already operate one of the leanest offices in the region.

Also, I made the hard decision to eliminate a new summer program that served more than 3,000 mostly low-income students who needed academic support as early as kindergarten to meet grade level standards.

While many of the financial commitments that led us to this point were made years ago, confronting their impact is my responsibility. In the coming months, I expect to approach these challenges with a collaborative spirit by engaging stakeholders in the budget review process and seeking their advice on reducing costs.

I invite the community to get involved by visiting www.scusd.edu/budget-review-process and holding the board and me accountable.

Jorge Aguilar is superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. He can be contacted at jaguilar@scusd.edu.