An OEA member holds up one of many signs at the OUSD school board meeting.

Class sizing and salaries rising dominate school board meeting

on September 25, 2014

Tuesday’s school board meeting was dominated by one color: neon green.

In their bright t-shirts, members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) crowded into La Escuelita Education Center’s Great Room during the biweekly meeting of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Education. Board members did their best to continue business as usual amid a noisy crowd demanding reduced class sizes and salary increases. But when a “contract now!” chant became too loud for regular conversation, the board retreated into an unexpected recess.

“We are showing the district that we are tired of waiting for a contract,” OEA president Trish Gorham said about negotiations underway between the school board and union. “We need to have a contract that’s going to give students what they need in lower class size and increased counselors and other support personnel.”

Teacher after teacher filed to the microphone during the public comments section of the meeting to argue for reduced class sizes, an issue that dominated the evening. The focus was on both special education and transitional kindergarten (TK), a bridge program established in the 2011-2012 school year to serve children between preschool and kindergarten. There is no formal size limit for these transitional classes in the OEA contract, but by default, the assumption has been to extend the kindergarten class size limit of 27 to this younger age.

Teacher Kelly Jacobs of the Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, an elementary school, said he has 22 students in his TK class, which he called “a handful.” He can’t imagine having 27 4-year-olds, he said. Jacobs told board members that a teacher colleague who does have 27 TK students in one room must interrupt her class each time one of her students needs to go to the bathroom.

Antwan Wilson, who took the reins as superintendent this summer, responded by saying that the “max is set” for TK at 27, “though we have great interest in lowering those class sizes as we go forth.” Wilson suggested that school sites use their discretionary budgets to move this faster if desired, to which one teacher yelled, “Where’s the money?” This same teacher later commented that she tried to use discretionary funds at her school to reduce her class sizes, but a school district administrator at OUSD blocked the effort.

Teachers working with special education students also spoke of challenging classroom situations. Monique Painton of Westlake Middle School teaches a group of students with special needs. She said she doesn’t have teacher aid support when she needs it, and struggles with basic physical and mental needs of her students, which must be met before working on overall learning goals. Painton asked the school board to cap class size and “consider special needs when creating caseloads every year.”

But it wasn’t just class size that was up for discussion. OEA members said a salary increase was crucial to retain teachers. According to Gorham, OUSD teachers have received a 3.25% raise in the past ten years. They are requesting a 7% raise this school year and a 9% raise the following one, because they “dare to be average when compared to pay scales of surrounding districts,” Gorham said.

Teacher Benjie Achtenberg of Melrose Leadership Academy said he is married to another OUSD teacher, and that their combined salaries are just not enough to meet their living expenses. Jennifer Formoso, a teacher at Thornhill Elementary, reiterated the point, saying OUSD must do what it takes to retain teaching staff, including class size reduction and a salary raise. “We don’t want Oakland to be a training ground for every other district surrounding us,” Formoso said.

As the crowd thinned, additional items were addressed, including veteran OUSD teacher Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s petition to open the Roses in Concrete Community School.  If approved, the charter school would launch in the fall of 2015 in East Oakland, and would eventually include students grades K-12.

Board president David Kakishiba said the proposal for this charter school stood out from the many others he has seen because the school intends to address basic student needs and considers “the life circumstances and social-emotional elements” of an OUSD student.

Roses is also different because it is a lab school—an institution affiliated with universities, and explicitly designed for educational experimentation and teacher training.  Duncan-Andrade’s proposal says Roses will partner with San Francisco State University, the University of San Francisco, Mills College and Stanford University, and aims to create a teacher and administrator pipeline for environments like East Oakland.

When asked about the high numbers of schools in Oakland, Duncan-Andrade said there are too many charter schools in Oakland and nationally, but that Roses is different because its lab school will “support the school board to do better.” In his presentation, he called Roses an “epicenter for change”—a training ground for teachers and administrators meant to work in communities like Oakland’s in the future.

Despite the emotional tone of the meeting, there were concrete successes. Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge (District 3) reflected on the Superintendent’s summary of progress and urged people to take into account that Oakland has increased the graduation rate to 66%, which is higher than the often-quoted 50%.

Hodge said that even though tensions are high with contract negotiations and there is plenty of negative talk about OUSD, she hoped people would celebrate the advances made. “I want to applaud those folks who did heavy lifting and a lot of work over the last couple of years, and the folks who are picking up the baton in the coming years.”

Want to hear what an OUSD Board Meeting can sound like? Listen to OEA members chant “contract now!” as a gavel quickly calls the meeting into an unexpected recess.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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