Teachers’ union balks at ballot proposal to increase teacher pay
on January 14, 2010
It was a chilly December night, and more than 200 public school teachers had gathered in front of the Oakland Unified School District offices to rally for a union contract and a wage increase. Wearing their bright green union t-shirts under warm jackets, teachers young and old marched in a circle in front of the building, shutting down traffic on Second Street.
Jessie Thaler, an eighth-grade English teacher at Claremont Middle School in North Oakland, said she has taught in the district for four years and that it was time for a fair contract.
“We are working with students who are challenged in a lot of ways, and most who teach in Oakland put in a lot of hours outside of school to provide more time and emotional support to students,” Thaler said. “We’re the lowest-paid teachers for miles. It’s not fair to the teachers, and it’s not fair to the children.”
Thaler is right—Oakland teachers are the lowest-paid teachers in Alameda County, according to the Ed-Data website which catalogs data submitted by the California Department of Education. In fact, they are some of the lowest-paid teachers in the state. The average California teacher’s salary is $65,425, while the average teacher’s salary in Oakland is $54,158.
Teachers in Oakland have been agitating for a salary increase since school started in September with no union contract in place. The most recent rally was the one Thaler attended in December.
“There is constant turnover of staff. When I worked at Explore [Middle School], they only retained two other teachers between my first and second year,” Thaler said.
Things haven’t gotten better at Explore, which the OUSD decided to close in December. While Thaler says she is very happy at Claremont, her current school, she thinks Oakland’s teachers deserve more.
“Teaching is hard for everyone,” she said. “All we’re asking for is a fair contract.”
Last week, at a meeting of the school board’s Finance Committee, board member David Kakishiba presented a possible solution to teachers’ salary woes: an Oakland ballot measure that would raise funds for an almost 5 percent increase in teacher and school employee salaries through a new property tax.
“This will be a major infusion of resources while the state is hacking us to a comatose state,” Kakishiba said.
The Finance Committee voted to direct school district staff to draft two versions of a parcel tax ballot measure for the board to consider in February. One version will call for a $195 flat tax on all Oakland property owners, and the other will call for $0.10 tax per square foot.
It would seem that this would be an easy sell to teachers, who have seen little more than a 1 percent cumulative salary increase over the past seven years. Teachers do climb a notch on the pay scale each year, but the pay scale itself has not changed significantly since 2003. However, the pay-raise-via-parcel-tax proposal has run up against the most divisive issue in Oakland education today: charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are free and open to all public school students. They are based on a charter that must be approved—and that can be revoked—by the Oakland Board of Education. Charter schools often have access to additional funding through grants and fundraising efforts. Some Oakland charter schools are independently run and others, like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Aspire schools, are part of a nationwide network.
Charter schools have gained a lot of support nationally—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regularly speaks favorably about them and the Obama Administration’s new Race To The Top funds encourage their creation. They remain very unpopular, however, with many Oakland educators, who say these schools are an attempt to privatize education.
Complaints lodged against charter schools during the public comment portion of last fall’s school board meetings ranged from charter schools’ lack of concentration on special education to claims they kick kids out just before standardized tests to boost scores. Charter school proponents deny these claims and say they are providing a high-quality alternative to students whose neighborhood schools are not meeting their needs.
The current version of the proposed parcel tax would disburse funds to charter school employees (15 percent) as well as to traditional public school employees (80 percent), with the remaining 5 percent going to professional development for the district’s newest teachers. (The aim of the professional development is to curb Oakland’s high turnover rate, which is 14 percent annually according to the OUSD.) The proposal, the result of more than a year of work by a committee, is designed to appeal to disparate groups in Oakland’s education community.
The 69 comments on reporter Katy Murphy’s Oakland Tribune education blog about the parcel tax show that the educational community at large has not rallied together quite yet. The controversy is due in part to the decision last fall by Oakland’s teachers’ union, the OEA, to withdraw from the committee and to withdraw their support for the proposal.
“The issue is charter schools,” OEA president Betty Olson-Jones said last October, just after the OEA had pulled out of the committee. “We took a position that we would not participate in a group that funded charter schools. We feel very strongly that [charter schools] represent privatization: they are publicly funded, but privately run.”
Olson-Jones was one of the original conveners of the Parcel Tax Committee. As of Tuesday, she said the OEA had not yet reviewed the new parcel tax language presented to the school board’s Finance Committee last week, but it would “certainly have a fuller discussion around the fact that the charter school funds will be earmarked for teacher salaries.” This was not the case with Measure N, she said, a similar bill that failed to gain the approval of either the OEA or the Board of Education in 2008.
Supporters of the bill, like Parcel Tax Committee member Brian Rogers, say that including the charter schools is only fair to Oakland students at those schools. “We think all public money should follow students whether they attend a public charter school or a traditional public school,” said Rogers, who joined the committee as a representative of the community-organizing group, Great Oakland Public Schools.
“We’re just scratching our heads a little bit that the OEA would continue to not participate in this committee, because 80 percent would go towards teachers in traditional public schools—that’s $16 million,” Rogers said, working with the $20 million figure the flat tax is expected to raise. “If you oppose it, you’re basically fighting $3 million going toward charter schools. It’s somewhat cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
For teachers, the issue is very complicated.
If passed, the measure would give teachers a raise they’ve been waiting years for—and at a time when the school district is looking to slash its budget by $36 million due to state funding cuts. However, their union does not support the measure, and many traditional public school teachers say they feel some antipathy toward charter schools.
Charter school teachers are not union members because their jobs can come with certain requirements, like mandatory teaching of Saturday classes, that are not covered under the union contract. They are also eligible to be paid whatever their charter chooses to pay them, so they often make more than traditional public school teachers with the same experience. (Since charter schools are not required to publish a pay scale the way traditional public schools are, it is difficult to provide hard data on charter school salaries.) Still, many Oakland teachers have friends and colleagues at both types of schools and some have even taught at both.
Because of this delicate situation, many of Oakland’s 2,500 traditional public school teachers are reluctant to discuss the inclusion of charter schools in the bill.
One Oakland high school teacher—who requested that her name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue—said by email that she was not a supporter of charter schools, but that “the parcel tax may be the only way Oakland Unified teachers can make up any ground between our pay and that of surrounding districts. In order to recruit a competitive teaching force, compensation must be competitive as well.”
“I would prefer that charters were not included, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the potential financial gains in this economic climate,” the teacher, who is in her fifth year at a traditional public school, said. “I am a strong union supporter, but the selective sampling of opinions practiced by OEA makes it really hard to believe that they are making an effort to represent the interests of the majority of their workforce.”
OUSD board member Kakishiba said he did not see the point in arguing about the existence of charter schools at this time. “My point of view is that charter schools are now pretty firmly entrenched as part of the Oakland system—15 to 18 percent of Oakland public school students are in charter schools,” he said. “They are Oakland kids, Oakland residents, and I think it’s a fair thing to do to include them in this case because it includes all teachers and all school employees.”
The school board’s Finance Committee meets again on February 1 and is expected to review the parcel tax proposals drawn up by the district’s legal office at that time. The earliest the board would review the measure is at its regular meeting on February 10. If the measure is approved, the board must decide whether to bring the matter to Oakland voters in June or November.
According to Kakishiba, both elections have their pluses and minuses. He said the important thing is for the educational community to present a united front. The Measure N parcel tax measure for school funding failed in 2008 because of a lack of support from the educational community, he said. Kakishiba wants this time to be different.
“I believe we have – I have – a responsibility to act prudently,” he said. “To go out for a parcel tax in an election with, say, the union against it and a good likelihood that it could lose, would be an utter waste of taxpayer money.”
Lead image: Teachers (and some kids) rally for a union contract and a wage increase in front of the Oakland Unified School District offices last November.
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