Oakland teachers strike for better pay

The strike follows two years of failed negotiations between the district and the union

OAKLAND — Chants including “That’s why we’re on strike today – public education is our right,” and “Oakland is a union town – get up, get down” broke the early morning chill around the city as striking teachers carrying picket signs and demanding better pay descended on Oakland public schools Thursday morning, while few students were seen crossing picket lines to go to class.

The 3,000 Oakland public school teachers and their supporters were expected to demonstrate at all of the city’s 100 public schools, according to the Oakland Education Association. Picketers were scheduled to gather downtown at Frank Ogawa Plaza in the early afternoon and march to the nearby Oakland Unified central office on Broadway. After the rally they will head back to the picket lines from 2:30 to 4 p.m.

Teachers and their supporters were already blocking the entrance gates to Skyline High School at 6:30 a.m, Thursday, holding green union signs that read “On strike for more student support.”

The Skyline teachers and other picketers allowed a truck carrying food for the school into the gates, but planned to block other traffic.

“We are not going to be letting any vehicles in unless they are yellow buses,” said Donna Salonga, a ceramics teacher at Skyline who was speaking to strikers through a megaphone.

Teachers also began to form picket lines early Thursday at Fruitvale’s Manzanita Elementary School, which was lined with posters showing support for the striking teachers, with messages such as “We love our teachers,” and “Teachers inspire.

For Oakland teachers, it will be the third strike in 23 years, with the last one taking place in 2010 and ending after a day and the previous one occurring in 1996 for 26 days. Union leaders say they hope for a short strike, and plan to return to the bargaining table at 9 a.m. Friday.

The strike by Oakland teachers comes on the heels of a week-long one in Los Angeles last month and another earlier this month in Denver that ended after three days.

School principals this week have been warning parents about what to expect during the strike. Sports programs were suspended, although teams that made it to the playoffs will continue to play. The district said it was staffing classrooms with substitute teachers as well as administrative staff.

District spokesman John Sasaki couldn’t say how much would actually be taught in the classrooms Thursday or how many students were expected to attend. Principals will have access to “appropriate instructional plans” that can be implemented, according to a district news release that didn’t elaborate.

Amy Jones, an assistant principal at Manzanita Elementary School who was working amid the strike Thursday, said that virtually all of the school’s teachers were joining the picket line. Administrators and substitute teachers would be looking after students and had some activities planned, but normal lesson plans would not be implemented.

The Oakland Education Association and the district have been negotiating a contract off and on since the last one expired about two years ago.

The union has said the district’s offers don’t come close to paying teachers enough to make ends meet in the high-priced Bay Area. The average annual salary for Oakland teachers was $63,149 during the 2017-18 school year, according to a report from the state’s Department of Education. Salaries ranged from $46,570 to $83,724.

Before talks broke off Wednesday, Oakland Unified offered an across-the-board raise of about 7 percent across two-and-a-half years retroactive to Jan. 1, 2019, and ending June 30, 2021, plus a 1.5 percent bonus — slightly up from its original offer of 5 percent over three years.

The union has been holding out for a 12 percent increase over three years. The district contends that’s too much, considering it’s staring at a budget shortfall that could hit $56.6 million by the 2020-21 school year unless drastic cuts are made. A sharp decline in student enrollment from 54,000 to 37,000 over the past 15 years is partly to blame for that predicament, but union officials and other critics say that fiscal mismanagement is a bigger reason.

“It’s just unfortunate,” said Keith Debro, a 30-year educator who has spent 18 years as a special education teacher at Oakland Technical High School. “The district hasn’t managed money well, and it’s not all of their fault — I’d like to see the city get more involved.”

Debro was among a crowd of teachers picketing outside the school Thursday morning, where a group of supportive Berkeley High School teachers joined their Oakland counterparts.

“Our struggles are common,” said Karen Zapata, a Berkeley High English teacher. “We are also working on a campaign to increase our wages and provide more resources to our students. This is the right thing for us to do.”

Dan Siegel, a former Oakland Board of Education member from 1999 to 2006 and a civil rights attorney, was picketing with his wife Anne Weills at Skyline, where their son teaches.

“I think the teachers’ demands are more than reasonable, and the school district needs to meet them,” Siegel said, adding that the district should “tear apart the budget, and start all over again,” to ensure schools are fully staffed with teachers, librarians, counselors, and nurses, then use what’s left over to fund administration, “instead of doing it in the opposite direction.”

Weills lamented that teachers in Oakland often left after a few years to Bay Area districts’ with higher salaries.

Local elected officials expressed support for the teachers in person and on social media. State Assemblyman Rob Bonta joined the picket line on Thursday at Manzanita Elementary, as did Bay Area Congressman Eric Swalwell. Rep. Barbara Lee urged support for the teachers on Twitter, adding that she hopes the district and union can come to an agreement quickly.

Students who do not show up to school will have an unexcused absence unless a parent or guardian has called in to excuse them, according to the district.

But at a handful of local schools, few students were crossing picket lines into their classrooms. By the 8 a.m. classes, less than 10 students were seen walking into Oakland Technical High School. Only five students had arrived at Manzanita Elementary 15 minutes before class started at 8:30 am, assistant principal Amy Jones said, and a few more trickled in after that. Two school buses arrived carrying only one student each.

Administrators at Skyline High School declined to confirm how many students or teachers were on campus, but only a handful of students had arrived at the main gate of the school between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.

A union organizer at Skyline on Thursday reported low attendance numbers Thursday for various schools across the district — three students at Coliseum College Prep academy, six at Bret Harte Middle School, five each at Melrose Leadership Academy and Lafayette Elementary, and only one at Crocker Highlands Elementary, for instance.

McClymonds High School sophomore Waldo Perez said around 15 students showed up to the West Oakland high school Thursday morning. None of his teachers were there, he said, but staff was supervising them. Students were watching movies and hanging out, he said.

Instead of going into class, many students were among those at the picket lines. About 30 students were marching with teachers in front of Oakland Tech just after 9 a.m., while about 20 more waved placards and signs in front of the school in solidarity.

Anthony Lyons, 16, a junior at Ralph Bunche Academy, was out with teachers at the picket line, holding a sign that read “Fight for the schools students deserve.”

While he said he would attend class today at the direction of his father, he wanted to support his teachers, so he showed up early to march with them. He wants them to get a raise, he said, especially considering the high cost of Bay Area living.

“You got to stand up for yourself,” he said.

For students who choose not to cross picket lines, the city offered up space in 15 recreation centers that will be staffed by union members and volunteers.

At the Redwood Heights Recreation Center and Montclair Recreation Center, students took classes including martial arts, art, music, math — led by union members, volunteers and parents.

Volunteers said they expect the centers to be more full if the strike continues, and said some parents likely took the day off from work.

Parents also worked to set up “solidarity sites” which included various undisclosed locations, such as aprivate business and residence for children in other grades, that would host instruction and activities.

The Grand Lake Theatre offered $1 admission and $1 popcorn at special showings of “Black Panther” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” aimed at Oakland students and parents affected by the strike. About 120 people came out for two late-morning screenings, with more planned for the afternoon.

Mahasin Aleem, 39, refused to cross the picket lines at her sons’ schools — Edna Brewer Middle School and Cleveland Elementary — and brought them to see “Ralph Breaks the Internet” instead. Aleem said she appreciated the politically active theater’s support for teachers.

“This is a good lesson for them about standing together for our rights as employees, and what it costs to live in the Bay Area,” she said.

A temporary disruption to students in the school district is worthwhile, said Steve O’Carroll, a special education teacher at Skyline, because the conditions teachers are facing – lower pay, large class sizes, overburdened counselors, high cost of living – forces a lot of teacher and counselor turnover, so there’s less consistent relationship building with students.

“A lot of kids are falling through the cracks because no one knows them,” he said, adding that the strike is also about getting more and better resources for classrooms, such as newer laptops that function properly, and enough of them so students don’t have to share.

“We’re so close to Silicon Valley, every school should be fully outfitted” he said.

Estefana Ramos, a 1st grade bilingual teacher at Manzanita, said her main objective in striking Thursday was to fight for smaller class sizes. Her class is 25 students, the biggest she’s had in her nine years of teaching.

“It’s heavy with really high-needs kids, kids who have recently arrived from Central America and Mexico, and many are coming in with a lot of trauma,” Ramos said in an interview. “I’m responsible for their growth, but also their social, emotional needs, their traumas, everything. I — we — need more support.”

Parents were also among those at the picket lines Thursday.

Tania Chi pulled her son out of his first grade class at Manzanita in support of the striking teachers. They picketed outside the school in the morning, and she planned on dropping him off with a babysitter before going to work. She hoped the lack of attendance would get the district’s attention.

“That’s how OUSD makes their money, and we need them to listen,” Chi said, adding that she knew some parents who had to take their children to school despite supporting the strike, since they didn’t have any other childcare options.

Doug Hamilton, of Oakland, joined the picket lines with his 15-year-old son Ben Hamilton, who is a freshman at Skyline.

“I think this action is long overdue,” said Doug Hamilton, formerly a teacher for 15 years. “It’s taken too long for the district to really make an offer that makes any sense,” but that the offer is still “too little, too late.”

It’s not just a wage issue, however, Hamilton said. “The district keeps billing this as the teachers just wanting more money, which of course plays well in the press, but that’s not it. And they’ve just been really slow to act. Oakland has been a mess for a long time, the Oakland administration. As citizens, we’re sick of it.”

His son, Ben, said the impact is on himself and his fellow students.

“I want to show solidarity with the teachers because it’s not just their struggle; it’s our struggle,” he said. “If they get better pay, we get better teachers.”

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