Oakland’s schools are open again, but tension remains over budget cuts, teacher contract
on March 6, 2019
The Oakland teachers’ strike officially ended on Sunday evening, but the debate over their contract and district budget cuts is still not over.
The vote on Sunday was far from unanimous. Members of the teachers’ union—the Oakland Education Association—gathered at the Paramount Theater for four hours of debate before voting on whether or not to approve the tentative agreement, or TA, reached by union and the Oakland Unified School District. Teachers held signs that read “Say no to the sellout TA” and argued that the teachers should stay on strike until a better agreement could be reached, or so they could picket and attempt to shut down a school board meeting planned for Monday, at which the school board was set to vote on about $22 million in budget cuts.
In the agreement, teachers got an 11 percent ongoing raise through the 2020-21 school year, along with a retroactive 3 percent bonus for 2017-18. While the total raise of 14 percent is higher than the initial 12 percent raise teachers sought, it is spread out over another year, leading some teachers to fear it may not keep up with inflation. On class size, the district agreed to reductions of one student per class at high need schools next year and one student per class at all schools the following year. Those reductions are about half of what the union was asking for, but represent significant movement from the district’s initial offer, which included reductions only in fourth and fifth grade and in arts and physical education classes.
The agreement also gave caseload reductions to other school staff like counselors, resource specialists, psychologists, and speech therapists. For nurses, though, there was no caseload reduction, which the nurses have been fighting for over the last few years. Instead, nurses received additional salary increases and bonuses to help recruit and retain them.
As part of the agreement, Board of Education President Aimee Eng (District 2) agreed to a five-month moratorium on school closures. The board also agreed to vote on a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools. Both school closures and charter school growth were not originally part of the contract negotiations.
Ultimately, teachers passed the contract agreement in a close vote. The part of the contract that retroactively addressed the 2017-18 school year passed with 64 percent of the vote. The contract for 2018-2021 passed with 58 percent approval. Union officials said that over 70 percent of their members voted.
In a press release following the vote, union leaders hailed the strike as a victory, but just a first step. “This contract lays a solid foundation for the challenging fight ahead to ensure that all Oakland kids have access to fully-funded, well-resourced public schools in their neighborhood,” they wrote.
And the next day in a statement, district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel expressed her gratitude that the strike had come to a close. She wrote that she hoped the contract showed the district’s “commitment to recruiting and keeping the best teachers in Oakland.” She also recognized the divides the strike had illuminated. “We know that not all members were fully supportive of the contract terms,” she wrote. “I understand the sense of urgency to fix all of our long-standing fiscal and systems issues, but the reality is that it will take a few years to stabilize the District.”
But meanwhile on Monday morning, as most teachers and other staff returned to their classrooms and schools, a group of about 25 teachers from Oakland High School called out sick. Hundreds of high school students from all over Oakland also held a sick-out. They gathered at Laney College and marched to a school board meeting at La Escuelita Education Complex, where the board was preparing to vote on the cuts, which some board members say are necessary to fund the raise in the teachers’ new contract.
The board had previously tried to meet last Wednesday and Friday to vote on these cuts, but each time teachers and their supporters picketed, blocking entrances and forcing the board to cancel the meeting. On Monday morning, the protesters instead filled up the auditorium and addressed the board over the course of several hours.
The meeting revealed the issues that had driven a wedge between union members during the vote over the weekend. For example, over the course of the strike, the issue of school closures became central to the teachers’ demands. Earlier this year, the school board had voted to close Roots International Academy, a middle school in East Oakland. Although the teachers’ new contract agrees to a five-month moratorium on school closures, it does not appear to apply to Roots, which is still slated to close at the end of the school year. And at the board meeting, district staff made preliminary presentations on their “Community of Schools” plan, under which up to 24 schools will be considered for potential merger or closure over the next few years.
The students in the audience expressed concerns that these closures would simply continue after the five month moratorium has elapsed. Samuel Getachew, a junior at Oakland Technical High School, said the initial list of schools proposed for closure primarily serve students of color in low-income neighborhoods. “The majority of these are already underfunded and lack resources,” he said. “But rather than giving them sufficient funding, you aim to save a couple thousand dollars by sacrificing the schools that serve our most underserved communities.”
Another center of the discussion was a plan to eliminate about 150 positions in the district’s central office, some of them staffers who support student programs. When Director Jody London (District 1) said that the 11 percent raise in the teachers’ new contract is dependent on making these cuts, boos broke out in the audience. London said that during negotiations, the bargaining teams from both sides met with county and state officials, and that they all agreed that “unless this board reduces the budget for next year, there is not the funding to give the raise.”
As boos continued, Eng told the crowd that the board would meet in private upstairs if the audience became too disruptive.
Students were given a minute each to address the board, and they focused on expressing concerns about staffing for three programs: the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Achievement (APISA) initiative that provides academic support and teaches students about culture and history; restorative justice programs that encourage reconciling conflicts and resolving behavioral issues rather than doling out punishment; and support services for foster youth.
Speaking on behalf of APISA, Siale Liku, a senior at Oakland High School, said that the initiative offered him the opportunity to learn about his culture and history, when textbooks didn’t mention it. “We, Pacific Islanders, are more. We are scholars; we are leaders; and we are culture keepers,” Liku said. If APISA is cut, more than 45 ethnic student groups will be left with no support, he said.
Jacob Hackett, a senior at Skyline High School, said that after an incident with another student at school left him feeling unsafe, the restorative justice program helped resolve the issue. With the assistance of a restorative justice coordinator, he and the other students worked through their problem and are now friends. “It made me feel safe again on campus, which is more than the school police has ever done for me,” Hackett told the board.
In an interview later, Hackett said he was frustrated by the meeting because he feels that district officials are prioritizing money over students’ needs. He said that prioritizing students would mean not cutting needed programs. Without the restorative justice program, he said, he would have missed more days of school. “I’d be missing out on my education. I’d be missing out on being somewhere I love,” Hackett said.
Jennifer Martinez, a sophomore at Skyline High School, told the board she is in the foster care system. She said that her case manager at school showed her that she was cared for and loved. “Foster youth don’t get shown that, especially when we move from placement to placement. That breaks our heart,” she said.
As Martinez’s minute to speak ended, Eng thanked her and asked to move to the next speaker. But Martinez wasn’t done, and the audience encouraged her to keep going. As her microphone was cut off, she started yelling at the board—her anger and pain audible: “If you guys cut that, it’s going to hurt us! You’re going to traumatize us and we already have trauma!”
After hearing several hours of public comment from students, teachers, school staff, and community members, the board was ready to vote on the cuts. First, they voted on an amendment crafted by Student Director Yota Omosowho and Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3), which addressed the cuts to student programs. It asked the board to direct the district’s superintendent to allocate a half a percent of the district’s fiscal reserves to maintain funding for restorative justice and foster youth services, and the Office of Equity, which includes APISA.
Eng and Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) said they were concerned about dipping into the fiscal reserves because it could put the district in a precarious financial position and force more painful cuts in the future. Omosowho responded that, to her, the situation warrants extreme action. “If we don’t go into the reserve when this is a crisis for students, then what are we going to do?” Omosowho asked. “I’m tired.”
The amendment failed by a vote of four to three.
The board then approved the budget cuts by a vote of four to three. Directors Hinton-Hodge, James Harris (District 7), and Roseann Torres (District 5) voted against the budget cuts. Directors Gary Yee (District 4), Gonzales, London, and Eng voted for the cuts.
After the vote, students started to yell at the board. One cried, “I hate all of you!” Other students kept asking, “Do you see what you are doing?”
Unable to continue with the meeting, Eng announced a ten-minute recess and the board left the stage.
Students gathered together, sharing their anger and frustration. Omosowho told the other students that she has lost all faith and trust in the board. “Let’s take this to the state, let’s take this to the county,” she said. “Let’s talk to people who actually want to stand with students.” Students cheered in response.
Outside the meeting, Martinez sat with Crystal Rudecino, her case manager. After fighting through tears at the meeting, Martinez said she was ready to keep going. “I’m not going to stop fighting until I get what I need,” she said. “Because it’s not even just me, it’s so many other people. They need our support.”
Additional reporting and all photographs by Nikki Singh Randhawa.
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