Teachers protest proposed budget cuts as school board votes down possible charter school

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On Wednesday, while the school board met in closed session, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) took to the street to protest. With handmade signs, teachers gathered at seven different locations in Oakland to express their thoughts on the proposed school budget.

At the intersections surrounding Splash Pad Park, over two dozen teachers stood wearing black shirts with green letters proudly displaying the union’s logo, bundling up in their jackets to combat the cold. The teachers carried bold signs stating “Support a teacher contract that Oakland families and teachers deserve,” “fair contracts = quality schools,” and “more teachers, less administration.”

 At previous school board meeting, the district’s budget and finance committee advised the district to cut $14.2 million in spending over the next two school years, but no final figures or specific cuts have been named yet. At Wednesday’s protests, teachers expressed concerns about cuts affecting students and school sites, and advocated for them to come from administrative salaries and other overhead instead. They also passed around a flyer asking for lower class sizes in all grades, more counselors and nurses and increased support for special education.

Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham was seen with a bullhorn in hand. “We need to shout and make noise because this district is not making the right decisions for our students,” she said. “It’s a crime. We need to fund our schools. This district has to make better choices in where they allocate their funds.”

Handmade signs weren’t the only forms of protest. Four music teachers from Oakland Technical High School played their musical instruments to signify their voices, playing songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “This goes way back to the beginning of the union movement, union bands,” said protestor Ted Allen. “All of us are music teachers, so [we’re] just representing with the tools we have at our disposal.”

The protest broke up before the school board meeting, with only Gorham and a few others attending. Yet the meeting extended into early Thursday morning, and emotions were high as the Oakland school board discussed its budget and prepared to vote on whether to accept Latitude 37.8 High School as a charter school. One after another, supporters on both sides addressed the board with their fears and hopes.

“Our desire is to be locally authorized because we want to work in deep relationship with Oakland schools and the district as a whole. We want in good faith to be a school that OUSD is proud to call it’s own,” said Latitude 37.8 High School Principal Lillian Hsu. “Our commitment is real and it is deep.”

“Are you going to serve who we serve, and by that, I mean are you going to serve our newcomer population? Are you going to serve our [special ed] students?” said educator Jasmine Miranda, speaking to the board but facing the crowd to address the charter school’s supporters. “Are you going to serve our emotionally-distraught PTSD students? Are you going to serve our African American students?”

In a 7 to 1 vote, the board voted not to approve Latitude 37.8 High School as a charter school.

School board President James Harris (District 7) addressed the crowd’s mixed feelings, explaining why he planned to vote no. “We have a hybrid district, whether you like it or not. There is no tomorrow where charter schools will be wiped from the face of Oakland. There is no world where district schools will be wiped from the face of Oakland. We must co-exist,” he said.

After the vote, Hsu comforted Latitude’s supporters in attendance, giving them hugs.

“I think it is a real turning point for the district that they are really recognizing the impact that charter schools have made and they are choosing to protect the Oakland Unified School District. I think that is very epic,” said OEA president Gorham, speaking about the board’s no vote.

In other board business, student director Gema Quetzal was selected as a finalist for a student membership position on the State Board of Education. She is currently one of three people being reviewed in the final round. If selected, she will be appointed by Governor Jerry Brown.

During the public comment session, community members, parents and teachers said they were disappointed with how the school board handled the announcement that the district had discovered lead in the water of more Oakland schools. In addition to McClymonds High School, where lead was found in the water this summer, Thornhill Elementary School, Brookfield Elementary School, Glenview Elementary School (at Santa Fe), Fruitvale Elementary School, Joaquin Miller Elementary School, Encompass Academy, Burckhalter Elementary School, Lakeview Site/AIMS School, and East Oakland Pride Elementary School were recently found to have lead in the water pipes. Many community members declared they found out about the lead in reports from the media.

“I was very disheartened to find out three things. One, we read about it in the newspaper. Two, a very good amount of school leadership read about it in the newspaper. Three, you took it out on the children. We got long memories of Flint, Michigan. The Flint leadership fouled the people for two and half years. This is an environment justice issue,” said Toni Cook, a board member from American Indian Model Schools.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell read from a statement regarding the status of lead in OUSD schools. “In August, 2017, water safety concerns regarding the lead levels of water at McClymonds High School were brought to my attention. After the district found elevated lead levels at McClymonds we made the decision to conduct an internal process to test drinking water at each district run schools, charter schools and all early childhood education centers. Today 70 schools have been tested. We expect the rest to be completed within the next few weeks. … The cases in which one or more water sources were found to have an elevated lead level the source, whether it was a fountain head or faucet, has been immediately taken out of service for replacement,” she said.

The contamination at Thornhill Elementary and Glenview Elementary are now resolved, according to her report.

The next board meeting will take place on Wednesday, November 27, and board members plan to vote on the budget plan for mid-year adjustments.

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