Following in the footsteps of Los Angeles teachers, the Oakland teachers’ union on Monday announced that its members have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, after unsuccessful negotiations over pay hikes, class sizes and additional support staff.
“This is an overwhelming mandate from our members in support of increases in student supports, lowering class size, a livable wage to keep good teachers in Oakland, and a mandate to keep our public schools open,” said Keith Brown, union president. “We do not want school closures.”
The 2,206 to 105 vote will allow union leaders to call a strike anytime after Feb. 15, when a neutral fact-finding report is expected. The report from a neutral three-member panel can also be used as the basis of a settlement. Union demands include a 12 percent raise over three years, smaller classes and additional counselors and school nurses to help the district’s 37,000 students. Educators cast their ballots over four days last week.
Teachers gathered outside Oakland City Hall on Tuesday to rally support for their demands. Their cause won a show of support from the Oakland City Council which has no authority to settle the contract dispute which is with the Oakland Unified School District.
The district has offered teachers a 5 percent pay raise over three years, along with what the union has described as minimal reductions in class sizes. The school board expects to vote Wednesday on up to $30 million in budget cuts that could help fund the pay raises, which the district estimates would cost $13.5 million next year and $33.1 million in 2020-21.
Los Angeles teachers have a new contract, resolving a six-day walkout by 30,000 teachers, that grants a 6 percent raise to teachers and calls for spending $403 million to hire hundreds more nurses, counselors and librarians. It also calls for gradually lowering class sizes — which are frequently 38 to 40 students — over three years.
Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said Monday that the district does not want a strike.
“We believe that our teachers deserve a fair wage, and we are doing everything we can to find a solution,” she said. “We will continue to advocate for more funding from the state and find a way to compensate our teachers fairly.”
In a press release Monday, the district said: “We support a wage increase for all of our employees, but we must also work within the reality of our financial situation.”
District officials say they don’t have enough money to meet all the demands of teachers as well as the needs of their students. They are calling on the state to invest more in public education to help districts like Oakland and others that are having trouble paying their bills due to rising costs in transportation, special education and employee pensions.
“We’re doing all we can here in Oakland to put more money in our classrooms,” said Board President Aimee Eng and board member Jody London in a recent opinion piece in The San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s time for our state to do the same.”
While teachers agree that the state should invest more in schools, they say the district is not spending its money wisely. Dennis Nelson, a teacher on the district’s negotiating team, said the district spends 32 cents on the dollar on teacher compensation compared to 39 cents on the dollar spent on average by other districts. He was on the team that presented the union’s position during a two-day fact-finding hearing last Friday and Saturday.
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Although the district had previously said it had another offer to present, district spokesman John Sasaki said that did not happen during the fact-finding. However, Nelson said the district did “share some ideas about movement” on its proposal with the mediator, which are confidential.
“I imagine that will work its way into the fact-finding report,” Nelson said. “It’s a sweeter proposition in some ways and in some ways it isn’t because they were trying to package some things that would meet our needs.”
He said the union and district are focusing on nine articles of the contract that remain unresolved.
Now that teachers may be poised to strike, Sasaki said the district is putting together a strike plan. It is looking for substitute teachers and informing central office staff they may be needed at schools, he said.
And like in Los Angeles, both the union and district are talking to elected officials statewide who may be able to intervene.
“We’re talking to everybody that could possibly help prevent a strike, certainly,” Sasaki said.
The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to support the teachers and oppose school closures after teachers rallied outside City Hall to drum up support for their potential upcoming strike. During the rally, Anthony Jenkins, Sr., pastor of Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church pledged to open his church to students during the strike and called on other church leaders throughout the city to join in his efforts to provide safe spaces for children.
Inside, about 17 teachers and their supporters spoke passionately to the eight council members, imploring them to join their fight for increased wages, smaller class sizes, more student supports and to stop school closures. Several also said they would like the state to better fund K-12 education and to forgive about $40 million remaining that Oakland Unified owes on a $100 million loan it received in 2003 when it became fiscally insolvent and taken over by the state. Some also asked the city not sell surplus property to charter school operators.
City Council members said they appreciated the work teachers do and want to work more collaboratively to meet students’ needs. Vice Mayor Larry Reid pledged to walk the picket line with teachers if they strike and said he would try to schedule a meeting with the school district board president before that happens.
“We can’t make them do what we want, but we certainly can have that dialogue,” he said, adding that he would attempt to help the board president understand what teachers are seeking “and what as a city, we should be demanding.”
Sabrina Landreth, city administrator said she would work with city libraries and recreation centers to help provide safe spaces for students during a potential strike.
The district is planning to close or consolidate up to two dozen schools over the next five years to cut costs, due to lower-than-anticipated enrollment, in part because of charter school competition.
The school board recently adopted legislative priorities seeking revisions to state law that would allow districts in “fiscal distress” to reject new charter school petitions or renewals.
The financial impact of charter schools on Oakland and Los Angeles have affected contract talks.
As part of the bargaining agreement reached between Los Angeles Unified and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the school board agreed to vote on a resolution asking lawmakers in Sacramento to adopt an 8 to 10 month moratorium to allow a study on the impact of charter schools on the district. The board approved the resolution by a 5-1 vote.
About 30 percent of the roughly 50,000 students in Oakland attend charter schools, leaving about 37,000 students enrolled in district schools. That enrollment shift is one of the reasons the district is looking to close 24 of its 86 schools over the next five years. The district has 44 charter schools.
The Oakland teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, says the district made school closures a bargainable issue by linking its plan to close schools to its ability to meet teachers’ salary demands. But the district disagrees and does not plan to bargain its closure plan.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.
This story was updated on Feb. 5 at 8:30 p.m. to include the teachers’ rally and a vote of support by the Oakland City Council.