On the fifth day of their strike, Oakland teachers force cancellation of a school board meeting
on February 28, 2019
On the fifth day of their strike, Oakland teachers shut down a school board meeting. Starting in the early afternoon on Wednesday, teachers and their supporters picketed outside of the La Escuelita Education Complex. By the time the meeting was set to start, thousands of teachers, parents, and students were marching all around the building. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials released a statement postponing the meeting.
The school board had been set to vote on about $21.75 million in budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year. The board has been discussing these cuts at meetings for the last few weeks, which include up to 150 layoffs for district office staff and administrators. Originally, the cuts were expected to affect student programs like foster youth services, the Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement Program, and restorative justice initiatives which encourage reconciling issues and behavior rather than punishment. But pushback from students and community members has led the board to find alternative areas to consider cutting.
Before the meeting was cancelled, Chaz Garcia, the second vice-president of Oakland Education Association (OEA), said in a press conference held outside La Escuelita that it was premature for the school board to hold a meeting. “We are in the midst of contract negotiations. Continuing to hold the meeting is irresponsible and will jeopardize the ability to settle a fair contract for our students,” she said. She also warned that any school board members who crossed the picket line to attend the meeting would be “disrespecting the wishes of not just teachers, but the community and all of labor in Oakland.”
In their statement postponing the meeting, the OUSD communications team said that district staff was “disheartened by tactics that directly interfere with the District’s ability to give the teachers a raise, and get students and teachers back into classrooms.” The statement said that budget cuts are needed in order to free up money to increase their offer of a raise for teachers.
The statement also revealed that on Monday, the district’s bargaining team had increased their offer to an 8 percent ongoing raise and a 2 percent retroactive bonus. That’s up from their pre-strike offer last week of 7.5 percent ongoing and a 1.5 percent bonus.
Negotiations have picked up this week. After only meeting for one hour of bargaining over the weekend, this week the two sides have been bargaining from morning until late in the evening each day. The OEA has credited California State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond for mediating and helping to make progress in the negotiations. California Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has also been at the bargaining table to help mediate.
Meanwhile, despite the rainy weather, teachers and their supporters have continued to assemble in big numbers on picket lines and at midday rallies. On Tuesday, thousands marched from Elmhurst Community Prep and Alliance Academy, two middle schools on 98th Street in East Oakland, to Roots International Academy, a middle school on 66th Street. The school board voted to close Roots at the end of the school year and according to parents, the district has mostly offered Roots students spots at Elmhurst and Alliance, which are merging next year. The march was meant to symbolize the 2.5 miles that Roots students would have to travel next year.
The rally outside Roots included dancing, a performance by local rapper Bambu DePistola, and a speech from Oakland musician and filmmaker Boots Riley.
The festive energy from that rally carried over to La Escuelita on Wednesday. Teachers and their supporters marched around the building, carrying umbrellas and saran-wrapped signs as it rained throughout the afternoon. Some umbrellas had been decorated for the strike with “Fighting for our students” and “On strike” written out in red tape. A tricked-out, bright red car blasted music and picketers danced as they passed by. Students—from those in high school to those in strollers—were out on the picket line. Two young kids played with bubbles as they walked with their parents. Chants of “Come rain, come shine!” broke out as cars passing by honked frequently.
Drew Debro, a special education teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, said that teachers have been energized by the community’s support. “It’s one of the most rewarding feelings. It makes you feel like what you’re fighting for is actually a fight that is winnable and a fight that is backed by others in the community,” he said.
For Debro, disrupting the school board meeting was necessary to remind district officials about what teachers are sacrificing. He said that he hasn’t been able to shake the idea that board members have been continuing their lives normally, while teachers have put their own lives through upheaval. “We’re out here taking days and days of pay cuts in the freezing cold and are standing up for what we believe in,” he said. “The members of the school board in a lot of ways either are oblivious to this—or certainly have been acting like they are.”
Around 4 pm—when the board meeting was scheduled to start—news started to trickle out that the meeting had been cancelled. At about 4:15, a group of students started chanting, “Our schools, our town! We shut the school board meeting down!” That chant grew louder and cheers erupted near the main entrance to La Escuelita. It took a while for the news to spread all around the building, but, as it did, new bursts of cheers broke out.
Everyone jubilantly made their way to the front of La Escuelita, and as the teachers and their supporters spilled out onto E. 10th Street, a chant of “We shut it down!” quickly transformed into “Whose schools? Our schools!” Supporters played drums, tambourines, and saxophones, as the group danced in the streets.
Sarah Boyd, a school nurse at Oakland Technical High School, said she felt euphoria after learning that the meeting had been cancelled. Nurses, speech therapists, psychologists, and counselors are all a part of OEA and have been on strike, too. They’re asking for reductions to their caseloads. She said she’s taken time out of her busy schedule repeatedly to go to board meetings and warn the board that the district’s nursing shortage—there’s currently 22 nurses for roughly 37,000 students—was unsafe for students and could result in a disaster. “And nothing’s ever happened,” she said.
For Boyd, getting the meeting cancelled was just another sign of how powerful the strike has been. “There’s been so much joy and so much community support and I just can really feel the power of thousands of people united with one goal,” she said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.” Boyd has been bringing her kids out to the strike because she said it’s the best civics lesson she can imagine.
On E. 10th Street, teachers and their supporters started to sing “Happy Birthday” to OEA President Keith Brown, who was not at the rally because he was in the middle of negotiations. Then, the group took a moment to be silent so that they could think about the power of what they’d just accomplished. The suggestion took a minute or two to reach the whole crowd, but a moment of silence followed. Then cheers and music broke the silence and the joyous atmosphere resumed.
The school board has rescheduled their meeting for this Friday at 2 pm. The board is trying to meet a deadline on Friday, March 1, when they’re supposed to send its budget plan for 2019-20 to the Alameda County Office of Education and to the state. If county and state officials believe that the budget plan shows the district is taking the proper steps toward financial stability, then the district will be eligible to receive state funds to cover part of their budget deficit for 2019-20. The process is part of Assembly Bill 1840, which was passed in 2018.
Earlier this week, the OUSD released attendance numbers, saying that about 6 percent of students are coming to school during the strike. They estimate that the district is losing about $1 million a day during the strike due to low attendance because part of schools’ funding by the state is based on daily student attendance. Meanwhile, union officials say that only 3 percent of students are attending school. Many students are attending solidarity schools set up by parents, community organizations, and local churches. At the solidarity schools, students are given meals—using funds from a Bread for Ed campaign organized by the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America—and are supervised during informal classes and play time.
As of Thursday morning, the strike was entering its sixth
day. Teachers and their supporters rallied downtown in front of City Hall in
Frank Ogawa Plaza and marched to the state building where negotiations between
OEA and OUSD are ongoing.
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