Teachers strike Thursday, return to bargaining next week

“Do you know who Ruby Bridges is?” Monique Brinson, the principal of Sankofa Academy in the Bushrod neighborhood asked the 26 students sitting cross-legged in a big circle in the school’s gymnasium on Thursday morning.

Normally, these students would be settling into their classrooms with their teachers, but today an “emergency temporary employee,” the school’s non-teaching staff and Brinson were responsible for the small group. All six of the small school’s regular teachers were outside on a picket line as part of a district-wide teacher strike.

A majority of Oakland’s 2,339 teachers and 38,826 students were expected to be out today due to the strike but district spokesperson Troy Flint said he didn’t expect to have final numbers until Monday.  Teachers’ complaint is that they have not received a raise since 2003, and despite two years of contract negotiations with the district, will not be offered a raise for the 2010-2011 school year either.

The district had 300 “emergency temporary employees” hired to act as temporary teachers on Thursday, but only one such employee was at Sankofa.  Though some parents worried last night on an email listserve that understaffing would be a problem it did not seem to be an issue at Sankofa, where only one quarter of the students had shown up.  Though Brinson declined to make a comment on the strike, she focused her morning lesson on the importance of teachers.

In the Sankofa gym, hands shot up.  The boy who was called on pointed confidently at the picture book Brinson was holding, “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” about the young girl, immortalized by the famous Norman Rockwell illustration, who was the first black child to integrate an all white New Orleans school in 1960.

“That’s right,” Brinson said.  “Ruby Bridges faced many challenges but she had a teacher who believed in her, just like you have teachers who believe in you.” Brinson told the students she would read them the story and then, gesturing to a pile of paper, markers and crayons behind her, said that each student would write a letter of appreciation for his or her teacher and hand deliver the note outside.

Meanwhile, Teresa Hart, Sankofa’s first grade teacher, was anxious to know how many students had shown up for class.  Hart has been teaching in Oakland for nine years and had no qualms about why she was standing on the corner of 61st and Broadway that morning instead of in front of a classroom of six-year-old students. “We’re fighting for our contract,” Hart said.  “I am feeling like the district is spending money in places where they shouldn’t.”

The Oakland teachers’ union, officially known as the Oakland Education Association, and the Oakland Unified School District have been in negotiations over the renewal of the teachers’ contract for two years now.  Teachers are asking for a raise and the district officials say they would like to give them one, but there is no money in their shrinking coffers to do so.

“We know that our teachers are underpaid for the challenging work they do,” reads a statement on the district’s website.  “However, we cannot commit to a raise for teachers at a time when drastic reductions in state funding have led to $40 million in cuts over the last two years and are forcing us to slash $85 million from the 2010-11 general fund.”

Union leaders have said they understand that there is a budget crisis but that they believe the district is misspending money. They say that a change in priorities that eliminates spending on outside contractors and non-school site administrators could fix the problem.

The battle of numbers has gone on all year with the union publicizing one set of figures and the district countering with another, making it hard to understand the complete financial picture.  For example, the union distributed fliers last fall claiming that the Cost of Living Allowance, or COLA, which is the increase in the amount of money the district gets from the state each year, has resulted in a 21 percent increase in funding to the district between 2003 and 2008. Union leadership says the additional money has not been passed on to teachers as salary increases as they believe it is meant to be.  A separate flyer, titled “Separating Rumor from Reality,” published by the OUSD granted that this was true, but that since 2008 the COLA has been cut so dramatically that the net increase is only 4.6 percent.

On Tuesday, April 27, the district announced that the school board had voted to impose its “last, best and final” contract offer despite not having agreed on the terms of that contract with the union.  The imposed contract holds salaries steady and covers the rising cost of benefits. But it also removes strict limits on class size and reduces the minimum number of full time teaching positions available in the district’s adult education program.

The imposed contract also contains “reopeners,” clauses that allow the contract to be re-opened for negotiation.  According to district spokesperson Troy Flint, these clauses are in place because this contract “is not meant to be long term.”  The reopeners are necessary, he said, because, “We’re coming back to the table next week to negotiate a contract that would be in place for three years.”

Ann Argobast, a kindergarten teacher who held a picket line on the corner of 63rd and Telegraph with a large group of parents, teachers and students from Peralta Elementary, is worried about the reopeners.  Such clauses, she said, would allow the district to reopen the contract for negotiation whenever they wanted.   “And I don’t think it would be to give us a raise,” she said.  “It’s more likely they would be asking for a cut.”

Nikko Mechanic, 7, is usually in school at Peralta at 10 in the morning, but on Thursday he was perched on top of a utilities box with his friend Ella Rosenthal who hoisted a colorful sign that read “We *heart* our wonderful teachers!”  Nikko’s mother, Laura Counts, knelt nearby spreading cream cheese on a bagel for him.

“Even if there’s no money, they’ve been saying that for years and now it’s time to give teachers a raise,” Counts said.  “I don’t know if there’s money they are hiding there or not, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  We’re just out to support our teachers.”

In contrast to the few dozen students on the picket line, only six students were inside Peralta according to the school’s principal, Rosette Costello, who said she was “lonely without my teachers and my kids.”  Costello declined to comment specifically on the strike but said, “I believe classrooms must come first.  You can write that.”

Principal Sheilagh Andujar, who presided Thursday over the mostly empty Oakland Technical High School, followed suit in declining to comment directly on the strike, as did every principal interviewed for this article.  Andujar said that a couple of her school’s 85 teachers had chosen to come to school on Thursday and six district-assigned teachers had shown up for work.  Most of these teachers, termed “emergency temporary employees” by the district are from outside of Oakland since in-district substitute teachers belong to the same union as Oakland teachers.

Union members considered these workers scabs–people who work when a strike is being held–but the woman who was filing this role at Sankofa is a substitute teacher in Sacramento and said she wasn’t against the teachers, she was just there to help out.  “I think asking for a 15 percent increase is ridiculous at this point,” the woman, who declined to give her name, said.  “I know a lot of teachers in Stockton and Sacramento who have lost their jobs and I think the district and the union in Oakland can work together and I hope they do.”

At Tech, the six “emergency” teachers were helping the 60 students who showed up to write their personal statements for their college applications and supervising seniors who were working on their senior projects.  Other than discovering some doors and gates jammed shut with a curious combination of toothpicks and a mystery glue, Andujar said there had been no security concerns.

In front of the school, a number of life-long teachers and active union leaders milled about in their neon green Oakland Education Association t-shirts holding signs that read, “OUSD Unfair! Oakland Teachers On Strike!”  Fifty-six of Tech’s teachers had shown up to participate in the picket line according to David de Leeuw, the chair of the union’s bargaining team and one of the union site representatives at Tech.  “I’m sure some of them just had a lot of grading to do” de Leeuw said smiling.  “Others agree with us, but are not comfortable being very public.“

Asked if anyone may have chosen not to participate because he or she did not agree with the union position, de Leeuw said he didn’t think so.  “We were not really very intimidating,” he said referring to the conversations union site reps had held with their colleagues before the strike.  “We just tried to convince people we should stick together and this was the right thing to do.”

After 23 years of teaching high school physiology and anatomy in room 217, de Leeuw said he only makes $54,000, which is very close to the district average for all teachers. The veteran science teacher does not hold a master’s degree, he said, but he did graduate from UC Berkeley with honors in biology.  “The biotech field was just taking off,” he mused, “but I started teaching.”

Four Oakland police officers from the traffic division were polishing their helmets and motorcycles on 45th St, which borders the northern edge of the large, Broadway-facing campus.  “We’re here to help facilitate a group exercising it’s constitutional right to assemble,” Sergeant Rick Andreotti said.  There had been no security issues, Anderotti said, only friendly teachers.

The officers supervising the downtown rally that most of the picketing teachers attended in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza from 12-2 Thursday afternoon said they had not had any issues either.  Sergeant A. McNeil estimated that between 350 and 400 people attended the rally.  Rally organizers put the number closer to 2,000. At 1 pm, a count of the number of people seated on each tier of the amphitheater in front of city hall multiplied by the number of tiers plus an estimate of the number of people standing in the back yielded around 500.

A dozen speakers, including city councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jean Quan, addressed the crowd of teachers.  A number of the speakers led teachers in chants of “Si, se puede!” and the call and response: “What do we want?  Contract!  When do we want it?  Now!”

“I’m here to advocate for my students,” said Lia West, a first grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary in East Oakland.  “Right now, with 19 students, I can meet with every kid twice a week for small group work instruction.  Whereas, if I had 30 kids, I couldn’t do that.”

Neither West nor her Horace Mann colleague Sara McCasland said they knew much about the proposed parcel tax that may be an item on the November 2010 ballot, which would ask Oakland voters to approve a property tax to raise funds for teacher salaries.  The education-focused community organizing group, Great Oakland Public Schools, has been pushing this measure. So has long-time school board member David Kakishiba. OEA leaders were involved in initial discussions but dropped out last fall over the decision by the rest of the parcel tax committee to include charter school teachers as beneficiaries of the new funds.

McCasland, who teaches fourth grade, said she wasn’t convinced a parcel tax measure would work, anyway.  “As a homeowner — well, property taxes are already high,” she said.  “To raise property taxes again on homeowners won’t necessarily result in a raise for teachers.”  She cited past property tax measures, like Measure G, that she and other union members feel have resulted in funds being misspent.

By 3 p.m., when school dismissal bells were ringing across Oakland, few teachers were still out with signs.  A dozen stood in front of the downtown district building and a few more were still holding the line in front of Oakland Tech.  The rest had gone home to get ready for Friday when they would once again enter their classrooms to teach the students of Oakland.

Next week, the district and the union will go back to the bargaining table and the union will hold a members meeting to decide if further actions will be taken.

As for today’s action, union president Betty Olson-Jones said, “we hope [the district] got a loud and clear message.”

Mary Flynn contributed reporting for this article.

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