Thirty-five people showed up at Wednesday night’s school board meeting in downtown Oakland to speak on non-agenda items—a significant turnout given that there was no union-organized rally or charter school petition on the agenda, which have both drawn large crowds of speakers many times in the past year. Almost all of the speakers were there to contest the pink slips and “non-reelect” notices that were distributed to district teachers last month, telling them that they will not be returning to school in the fall.
Fourteen people came to ask that probationary teachers—those who have been teaching for less than two years after receiving a state teaching credential—who recently received “non-reelect” notices be considered for reinstatement. A non-reelect notice informs a probationary teacher that she will not be asked to return to her school. A non-reelect notice can be issued to a probationary teacher for any reason and no reason needs be given to the teacher according to district spokesperson Troy Flint. It is not the same as a pink slip, which is a notice given to teachers that they may be laid off the following year. In March, the Oakland Unified School District gave out 47 non-reelect notices and 58 pink slips.
Three teachers who had been issued non-reelect notices came to speak on their own behalf last night: Yusef Auletta and Stephani Hollister who both teach at the Community United Elementary School in East Oakland and Jessie Thaler who teaches eighth grade English at Claremont Middle School in North Oakland.
All three teachers began teaching in Oakland through the Oakland Teaching Fellows program which recruits college graduates with no educational background to be teachers and assists them in obtaining their teacher certification through an alternative program. Each teacher expressed the desire to remain employed by the OUSD and said that they’d been let go with no warning and no indication that their performance was sub-par.
Auletta submitted copies of his formal reviews on which he said he’d received a score of three out of four and many positive comments. Thaler had to pause in her comments twice to breathe deeply and wipe her eyes. “When they heard I’d lost my job, a lot of people said, ‘you can get another job.’ But the problem is not that I’ve lost my job, the problem is that I’ve lost this job. This is where I want to teach—these are my students,” she said.
Thaler said her performance had been cited as the reason for her non-reelect but that this confused her because the reviews she received from her school’s administration had been “glowing.”
Eleven other speakers—students , parents and fellow teachers—came to last night’s meeting to urge the board to reinstate Thaler. “I don’t know how to say this exactly,” said student Sasha Petterson, 14, “but overall, Ms. Thaler is my favorite teacher. She’s made school fun when so often it’s not.”
Other community members praised Thaler’s enthusiasm for teaching and for her students. They said Thaler runs a poetry blog, hosts an after school book club, awards “Thaler dollars” when students perform well in her class, and plans to participate—despite he non-reelection—in the upcoming Ride For a Reason, where teachers, parents and staff from Claremont and Oakland Technical High School will ride from Oakland to Sacramento to raise money for their schools.
Kathryn Williams, the other eighth grade English teacher at Claremont, also came before the board to ask that Thaler’s non-reelect notice be rescinded. Though Williams has many more years of experience than her colleague, “[Thaler] is an inspiration to me,” she said. “If anything, after getting her non-reelect, her zeal in the classroom has gone up. I need to continue to learn from her; she makes me a better teacher.”
Later in the meeting, Brad Stam, the district’s chief academic officer, said that he could not comment on any particular teacher’s non-reelect notice. “The non-reelect process is a process where the principal determines if a teacher should be re-elected,” Stam said. “I will continue to review and investigate those teachers. In May we will be reissuing the non-reelect list.”
There is no formal appeal process for non-reelect notices, said Renae Briggs, the teachers’ union (OEA) representative from Claremont Middle School, but she thought the board could influence Thaler’s case. “The people who can make the decision to keep Jessie Thaler in her position are sitting in this room,” Briggs said to the board. “Please, please make the right decision and keep Jessie.”
Six other speakers came to voice their support for keeping visiting foreign teachers in the district. One teacher from Spain, Nuria Martinez, who has been teaching at Global Family Elementary in Oakland’s Fruitvale District for nine years, said she had received a notice from OUSD that she was in violation of her H-1B visa because she had been absent too many times. She said that no one had told her beforehand that she was in danger of accruing too many absences and submitted documentation of each absence to the board.
Manny Lopez, a teacher Global Family and the first vice president of the OEA, Oakland’s teachers’ union said that some absences were allowed in the contract Martinez had signed so her dismissal was not “necessarily fair. Every day she was absent she provided notices — that’s incredible. I’ve never seen that,” he said.
As the board is not able to respond to individual cases it was not clear if they had the ability to do anything about the situation if indeed there was anything to be done.
The other item of concern to multiple speakers was the news that the principal and the two assistant principals at Montera Middle School in the North Oakland hills were issued notices of possible reassignment last month. Parents from Montera, including PTA president Ruth Siegmund, came before the board to ask that the leadership team at their school not be broken up. “They’ve made significant progress in the last three years,” Siegmund told the board as she submitted a petition with 329 signatures to keep the principals at Montera.
In other news, the board voted to continue holding board member-led meetings in each of the seven school board districts to encourage community participation in talks about managing budget cuts and addressing rampant district-wide problems like truancy. Jody London, the district representative for North Oakland, said she had already completed community engagement sessions at every school in her district but would continue to reach out.
The board also voted to go ahead with a poll to gauge voters’ feelings about a proposed Oakland ballot measure calling for a parcel (property) tax to raise teachers’ salaries. This is the second poll on the matter; the first was conducted a year ago with the idea that a ballot measure would be ready to go to a vote in the June 2010 election.
However, political disagreements significantly delayed the process; the largest centered around whether charter school teachers’ salaries would also be raised. The parcel tax committee, which was made up of community members, district representatives and OEA leadership, decided that since charter schools are public schools, charter school teachers in Oakland should benefit from any funds raised. This conclusion led the OEA to pull its support last fall, since OEA leadership is against the existence of charter schools in Oakland. Charter school teachers are not OEA union members.
One of the questions that this new poll will have to address, said board member David Kakishiba, who led the committee to design the parcel tax measure, is “Would you support the tax if the teachers’ union was not behind it?”