SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — At the heart of the Sacramento City Unified School District strike is a showdown between the district and school employees about what wages, benefits and staff positions the district can afford to provide.

The issues at the surface may be different, but the root of the labor dispute between SCUSD employees, including teachers, aides, bus drivers, custodians, other classified workers and the school district, is essentially the same as it has been for years.

The disagreement is about what the district can afford to give its workers.

In early 2019, the issues SCUSD was facing were disastrous, including an enormous budget deficit and the threat of California taking control of the district if the problem was not resolved.

“The reality is we have to make $35 mil in cuts to balance the budget and save our schools,” SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said in 2019. “We must do everything in our power to save our schools from state takeover. It would hurt our students today and for decades to come.”

Cuts were made, state mandated advisors were brought it in, however, by September of 2020 a dramatic shift happened.

The COVID-19 crisis collided with the budget crisis and the district went from a predicted $12 million budget shortfall to a $23 million dollar surplus.

“We were required to close schools because of COVID-19 of course. And this is the result in some of those spending categories,” explained SCUSD’s Chief Business Officer Rose Ramos in September 2020.

Money was saved on utilities, transportation and not filling vacant positions, and millions in federal and state COVID-19 relief funds for schools stabilized the district.

But as the school board said last week as the strike loomed, they are reluctant to commit one-time funds to ongoing costs like pay increases and new hires.

“Last year we established board fund about using one-time funds responsibly,” said Christina Pritchett, the president of the SCUSD board of education. “The contracts we negotiate with our labor partners must take this into consideration, the fact that we face constant oversight from the Sacramento County Office of Education among others into consideration.”

A letter from the county Office of Education reflects that oversight with the county superintendent essentially saying the district still has a structural deficit.

But for the people on the picket lines, the structural deficit means something different: not a enough people in the classroom, the lunchroom, the maintenance room to provide healthy, safe and effective learning environments for students and staff.