Oakland teachers protest for raises and smaller class sizes
on October 16, 2014
Oakland educators took to the streets in protest yesterday. At one intersection in North Oakland, one teacher appeared with signs and a neon shirt, then a few others, who brought more signs, as well as snacks. Half an hour later forty teachers and substitutes rallied at Broadway and 51st street.
“What do we want? … A raise,” chanted Roxanna Miles, who teaches second grade at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School. “When do we want it?” she hollered over the afternoon traffic. “NOW!”
The protests were spurred by a contract proposed on Tuesday by the Oakland Unified School District that offers teachers less pay than previous proposals for the 2014-2015 school year did, according a press release by the Oakland Education Association, a teachers’ union. The contract, the press release said, also ignores their call for more counselors and smaller class sizes.
“It’s been so long since I’ve had 20,” said Valerie Otsuka, a kindergarten teacher for the Oakland Unified School District, which has a cap of 27 students per classroom. “I know that it’s not going to last,” she said, referring the small class she teaches. Otsuka said that her principal at Fruitvale Elementary School supports the teachers. She also said that bigger classes make it hard for students who need one-on-one with teachers, as well as a quiet room to focus.
The decrease in salary raises was caused by an adjustment of the projected funds OUSD was going to receive from the state, according to Troy Flint, communications director for OUSD. In May, Flint said, the state legislature projected that OUSD would be allocated $25 million in what are referred to as unrestricted funds, which Flint said are subject to change. But that number was recently reduced to $15 million, he said, forcing Oakland school officials to reduce their teachers’ salary offers for the 2014-15 school year.
According to Flint, no money has been “taken off the table” in the negotiations with the OEA. The teachers will still receive the same salary increases, he said, but over a longer period of time.
“In order to be a high-quality school district across the board, we have to retain good talent and we have to attract additional talent,” Flint said. “And we’re not going to be able to do that at the skill needed unless we increase compensation.”
Investing in teachers and staff is one of the primary objectives of the administration under new superintendent Antwan Wilson, Flint said. This idea was echoed in a statement released by Wilson during negotiations with the OEA.
“OEA believes that our teachers’ conditions are our students’ conditions. I agree,” Wilson wrote in his statement. “For that reason, one of my top priorities is to ensure that the Oakland Unified School District is recognized as an employer committed to the development of its people, both personally and professionally.”
In obvious disagreement with the district’s position, Wednesday’s protesting teachers used neon shirts, signs and occasionally their voices to draw the attention of drivers in the busy intersection. An OEA statement said union members also protested at 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, 98th Avenue and International Boulevard, Splash Pad Park, Thornhill Drive and Mountain Boulevard, and Seventh and Market.
The wages for teachers have barely risen since 2003, Oakland Education Association president Trish Gorham said. Gorham has also told Oakland North that over the past decade, Oakland public school teachers have received a total salary increase of 3.25 percent.
First grade teacher Antony McKenzie said his class size increased by more than a third two years ago. “My wife works in a different district,” McKenzie said. You could buy a car with the difference in their pay alone, he said. McKenzie continues to teach at Hoover Elementary School because he wants to help disadvantaged students, he said, even though teachers are paid as though it’s 2003 while the costs of gas and rent have soared.
One sign read, “Honk! Teachers! Honk!” Some signs carried messages about unfair wages and crammed classrooms. Others asked drivers to follow the OEA on social media.
Carla Aiella, who teaches at Emerson Elementary, said larger class sizes would make it difficult for students in kindergarten to learn. For one math project, she said, the kids built a giant pencil, which would be hard to do with 27 children moving around. A blue Nissan honked as it drove through the intersection. “I don’t think cramming as many as you can is a good idea,” Aiella said.
“Come on, Oakland teachers,” chanted Roxanna Miles as a teacher on the median blew a whistle. She yelled, “Come on, I know you have a kid.” A few teachers chuckled.
While holding their signs as the afternoon wore on, the teachers talked among each other about their commute, their pay, and – as a police car passed – the relationship between crime and education.
A motorcycle honked. A UPS truck honked. An AC Transit bus honked, as did scores of other cars during the hour the teachers stood together.
“I like working with kids,” Otsuka, the kindergarten teacher at Fruitvale Elementary said. She turned toward the intersection. She was counting on the students to lead the schools in the right direction, she said, if teachers could be allowed to teach them right. “They’re our future,” she said.
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