Protests and dueling numbers mark schools meeting
on October 15, 2009
Almost 100 teachers, dressed in green, their union’s color, marched back and forth in front of the Oakland Unified School District building last night demanding a new contract. Chant sheets in hand, the teachers strode to the rhythm of call-and-response messages.
“What do we want?” bellowed a man with a megaphone.
“Contract!” shouted the teachers.
“When do we want it?”
Once inside the meeting, the teachers ceased their chanting, but at least 25 of them filled out speaker cards and took their two minutes of allotted time to speak to the board about their grievances.
Some told particular stories, like kindergarten teacher Emily Blossom, who said she could work for lower pay but is worried that she may have to find work elsewhere if her benefits are cut. “I am the sole breadwinner in my family – I have three children,” she said. ” I am here to speak for our health benefits. I’m hoping that we’re not going to lose dependent benefits in the new contract.”
Others spoke in broader terms, like Tania Kappner of Oakland Tech, who decried charter schools and “cheap, soft, private funding” as the root of the district’s problems.
Oakland teachers in traditional public schools have been working without a formalized contract since June 2008 and, at the request of the previous superintendent, a mediator has been brought in to oversee negotiations. Last week, the Oakland Education Association, the teachers’ union, distributed a flyer to its members and asked them to form “informational pickets” Wednesday morning to hand out the flyer to parents. In North Oakland, at least two schools–Tech and Emerson–had a few teachers out front doing just this early on Wednesday.
However, OUSD has called into question many of the statistics in the OEA flyer calling them “intentionally misleading,” according to school district spokesman Troy Flint. The district has issued its own document, entitled “Separating Rumor from Reality” that counters many of OEA’s claims.
For example, the union makes three assertions to argue that the district has funds it is not sharing with teachers as it should, while the district responds with its own accounting figures. From the union’s flyer: “OUSD received a 21% increase in cost of living increases from the state between 2003-2008 … but our teachers saw less than a one percent salary gain over the same years.”
But the OUSD responds that while the 21% figure is correct, it provides only “a partial picture,” since the majority of the cost-of-living allowances have been rescinded since 2008. In fact, the district declares, “the net increase in cost of living allowances since 2003 is just 4.6%.”
“We want to retain teachers because we recognize how critical high quality teaching is to student achievement,” Flint said. “But at the same time, we have to be aware that we are facing unprecedented economic crises at the state and local level.”
This fact was placed in stark relief during the board meeting, when the school district’s Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal told the board that by June 2010, the district would be $5.8 million in debt. Hal said this number did not include the approximately $7 million in the unreconciled cash difference discovered in 2008 by an outside auditing firm.
Hal’s statements were met with impassioned responses from the board members. Jody London, of North Oakland’s District One said, “We need to find a way to raise money! It’s time for something really radical.”
She suggested further exploring partnerships with local business, citing neighboring Emeryville’s Center of Community Life project, which helped return the district from state control to independence in only three years. London had heard about the project at the PLUS Leadership Initiative Forum held yesterday on U.C. Berkeley’s campus, and expressed surprise that the architect of the original concept for the program had been then-Emeryville superintendent Tony Smith, who this fall became Oakland’s new superintendent.
As if the situation brewing between OEA and the district and the district’s financial woes were not enough, last night’s meeting also saw board member David Kakishiba offer his resignation and Brad Stam, Chief Academic Officer, set a timeline for determining what to do with the district’s “focus schools.”
Kakishiba said his resignation was due to a finding by the district’s new chief counsel, or head lawyer, that Kakishiba’s job as director of the nonprofit East Bay Asian Youth Center, which receives some contract work for counseling services offered in OUSD schools, created a conflict of interest for him as a board member. This matter had been reviewed by previous OUSD lawyers but had never before been determined to be a significant conflict of interest. Kakishiba stated that he has refrained from voting on matters relating to EBAYC during his time on the board.
On December 9, Tony Smith will make a recommendation to the board as to what should be done about each of the district’s eleven focus schools. These schools are not necessarily slated for closure, but they either have very poor performance records or chronically low enrollment. The two focus schools in North Oakland are Far West, which is struggling academically, and Sankofa, which has only 111 students even though the building can hold 300. The possible closure options for each school, according to Stam, are to reopen the school as a charter, replace all or most of the staff, including the principal, contract with an outside entity to manage the school, or institute any other major restructuring including outright closure. The board will hold its final vote regarding these schools on December 14.
By the end of the night, only a few people remained in what had been a packed gallery at 5:30pm. It was 11pm when the board retreated to closed session. On a table just outside the conference room lay a number of informational flyers: the competing declarations of the OEA and the OUSD stacked one next to the other, vying silently for attention.
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