By Marilyn Bechtel, People’s World
OAKLAND, Calif. (PAI) — Hundreds of Oakland high school and middle school teachers, upset over protracted negotiations with the Oakland Unified School District for a new contract, took to the streets March 24 in a one-day “sick-out.”
They demanded the district raise teacher pay to the median in surrounding school districts and protested budget cuts and layoffs of classified staff who provide vital support services to students. The walkout was not authorized by the Oakland Education Association, the teachers’ union. Its last rally occurred on March 15, its website says.
Negotiations are ongoing over the teachers’ contract, which expired in October. The union is calling for a 23 percent raise to bring teachers’ pay to the median in school districts throughout surrounding Alameda County, while the district says its latest offer in pay and salary schedule adjustments would raise compensation by 8 to 11% and involve cutting some 100 classified support positions.
As teachers, students, parents, and community members gathered for a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza, outside City Hall, José, a teacher at Oakland High School, emphasized the walkout was about the educational wellbeing of students as well as teacher pay, and the new contract must not come at the expense of the classified workers.
“It’s a longtime practice,” José said. “The district always threatens, ‘We can’t afford a pay raise unless we fire a number of extra staff.’ So they’re playing divide-and-conquer in a way, because if we agree, then what will happen to the other workers in the schools?”
He stressed the vital functions of classified support workers who do everything from making sure students get their meals to providing special assistance to those who need it. “It’s not just ‘we,’ like the Lone Rangers—it’s a community effort. But that is not recognized.”
José said when the school district’s spending on management pay, consultants, and special programs is analyzed, it’s clear the money is there—“except that the district needs to prioritize the education of our kids.”
Among teachers and community allies addressing the crowd in Oscar Grant Plaza was 18-year-old youth organizer Luna Fife, who recently graduated from OUSD and is now on staff at MetWest High School.
“America has a problem, and we see it right here in Oakland,” she said. “There is no way OUSD administrative staff (management) should be making over $200,000 a year while cutting off classified workers. But instead of chopping from the top, they’re deciding to cut positions that do serve our communities—custodians, security guards, special education teachers, school nurses.
“I say—this is my opinion—chop from the top, and keep chopping, until the green comes down!” From around the plaza came the chant, “Chop from the top!”
As the crowd surged down Broadway Ave. to a second rally in front of the School District’s offices, two women shared their perspectives. Rumi, a teacher, said the district’s low teacher pay has meant that inexperienced teachers come to Oakland for a few years “and then, when they become good teachers, they move on to a better-paying job.” She added that many Oakland teachers can’t afford to live in the city.
Rumeli, a licensed clinical social worker, said social workers aren’t recognized at all, and don’t have their own contracts, so they’re on the teachers’ pay scale and their licenses and continuing education credits aren’t recognized. “This is actually the first time the social workers made a proposal to the union, so we’re also fighting for the social workers as well as the teachers and kids’ managers and everybody who’s underpaid and overworked.”
Standing outside the school district’s offices, special education teacher Michael Aponte told the crowd, “I want for a minute to look at the symbol of our community—an oak tree. We paint this picture of roots that grow deep and are widespread, of people who have grown up here, and have stayed to serve the community they live in.
“Education, teachers, families, students—these are the roots of our community. But if you salt the earth in favor of short-lived profits, the very symbol of our community will wither and drop, and all you’ll be left with is an empty building and tattered walls.”
Among community supporters addressing the two rallies were City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and Councilmember Carroll Fife.
Bas told the crowd she’d heard them from inside City Hall, which overlooks Oscar Grant Plaza. “I know when we invest in teachers, invest in our classified staff, that investment supports our kids’ education … I am with you! Go out there, make sure this system is equitable, that we pay our teachers and classified workers a fair wage, and that will help support our kids.”
Standing in front of OUSD’s offices, Fife noted workers are leaving jobs all over the country because they are tired of being disrespected by people with six-figure salaries who won’t invest in workers who are on the front lines every day. She told the demonstrators, “I will always stand with you, I will always fight side-by-side with you, because you are doing the most critical work needed for this entire society.”