Oakland teachers: “Educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions”
Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – After seven months of working without a contract, and negotiations the union says have been marked by management’s constant canceling of bargaining sessions, making non-serious offers and sending negotiators without decision-making authority, the Oakland Education Association announced that early in the morning on May 4, teachers and related professionals across many disciplines would be on the picket lines at schools throughout the Oakland Unified School District.

During the last week in April, the union’s 3,000 members – teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatric social workers, therapists, substitutes, and early childhood and adult teachers – had voted by 88% to authorize an Unfair Labor Practices strike.

Issues include salaries – Oakland’s teachers are the lowest-paid in surrounding Alameda County and among the lowest-paid in California – as well as improved services for students with special education needs, additional mental health support for students still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, smaller class sizes and therapist patient loads, using now-closed school buildings to house unhoused students, and investment in Historically Black Community Schools.

On the picket lines Thursday morning, teachers made clear the broad effects educators’ salaries have on the whole education system that serves nearly 35,000 Oakland public school students.

At Westlake Middle School, just north of downtown Oakland, English teacher Samuel Homich pointed to high teacher turnover, especially among math, science and physical education teachers, as the school’s biggest issue. New and inexperienced teachers require a lot of support, he said, and often don’t continue in their positions. A related issue is the number of positions that remain vacant, with the result that remaining teachers must fill in to make sure each classroom has a qualified teacher.

“Our students need stability,” Homich said, as drivers passed by, honking their horns in solidarity, “And so many students suffer from instability in their lives. They need to be able to come to school and count on the one thing that’s going to be stable. In the current situation, we can’t really provide that, all the time, for all our students.”

Those views resonated with Travis Walker, who teaches U.S. history and American literature to juniors at MetWest High School’s Erika Huggins Campus, adjacent to Westlake.

Walker said his juniors started the school year missing teachers for math, physics and physical education classes. As a result, the remaining teachers had to overextend their schedules to cover the vacant faculty positions, often teaching subjects for which they weren’t prepared. He himself had to teach a physical education class, for which he wasn’t paid because he wasn’t the teacher of record.

“So we are out here trying to get higher pay, but it’s not just for us,” he said. “It’s for the students because no learning happens if you don’t have teachers. Our students deserve qualified teachers.

Added MetWest art teacher Renée, “Education is the base for everything. It’s our future. It’s a much bigger picture than personal paychecks.”

At downtown Oakland’s Lincoln Elementary School, teacher Jacob Fowler said that over the last six months, the OEA “has put forward 21 comprehensive proposals regarding class size, community decision-making, compensation and support for our high-needs students,” but the school district “has dragged their feet,” responding to very few proposals and ignoring most of them.

The unfair labor practices strike, Fowler said, puts forward the union’s demand that the district “come to the bargaining table and put our kids first, rather than the consultants they seem so eager to hire and waste our money on.” He predicted that parents, teachers and students will all be “on the same side, fighting for the schools that we believe our students deserve.”

Substitute teacher Stephanie Trapp, mother of an OUSD student and a recent graduate, urged community members to continue supporting the teachers, “write to your members of Congress, be present at School Board meetings, and everything you can do to support our efforts will be greatly appreciated.”

At Oakland Technical High School, Kylise Hare, who teaches 9th grade biology, recalled the months-long crisis a year ago when the community fought back, with partial success, against closures of schools with majority Black and Brown students. “Some of the things we’re trying to do relate to school closures – trying to make sure the district talks to us well in advance and lets us try to come to other solutions before closing any schools.”

She cited examples of chronically overloaded schedules, including nurses who each currently serve 1,300 students – double the recommended 750 – and her own science classes, where “we have to keep kids safe when we’re doing labs, using chemicals and knives.”

During the first year Hare taught at Oakland Tech, she said, the school had two counselors, “and they were so overworked they didn’t come back.” All the counselors “have been amazing,” she said, “but there’s nothing they can do to really give students what they need, because they just have too many students.”

A noontime rally at Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of Oakland City Hall, brought together a thousand teachers, parents, students and community members.

MCing the program were OEA Vice President Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, who teaches at EnCompass Academy, and Pecolia Manigo, an OUSD alumna who is co-director of Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN), and a lead organizer of the Reparations for Black Students Campaign.

Taiz-Rancifer updated the crowd on the status of negotiations with the school district.

Marilyn Bechtel/PW

“For seven months,” she said, “this bargaining team of classroom teachers, counselors, nurses, school psychologists, substitute teachers, early childhood educators, special education teachers, teacher-librarians, with representation from every corner of the district, were able to provide proposals that represented each one of those areas. And OUSD has repeatedly returned their professionalism by canceling bargaining sessions, failing to offer proposals or counterproposals, and they have really failed to discuss any of our proposals in any meaningful way.”

Dr. Chela Delgado, an OUSD alum and former Oakland teacher whose two children are both OUSD students, said teachers could count on support from parents in the district.

“In fact,” Delgado said, “this feels a little like a group project that you all showed up to, and you did your homework, but OUSD didn’t really do theirs. They spent more time emailing me as a parent and telling me how great the deal was, rather than do their part of the assignment.

“When we say, ‘educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,’ we think that’s the realest thing that could ever be said.”

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee drew a rousing welcome from the crowd as she told the educators the school district “must find solutions with you for a fair contract that values your dedication, hard work, and love for our children and families and the community … I stand with you in making sure you have every resource at your disposal.”

OEA Interim President Ismael Armendariz emphasized the union’s work to bring the voices of all the professional disciplines engaged in education to the table in the contract talks. “This contract is about wages,” he said, “but it is also about your ability to say how your school is run. It’s about respect, it’s about making sure our kids have the resources they need.”

The Oakland Unified School Board has been divided over the strike. Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams and Valarie Bachelor, emphasizing that they spoke as individuals, addressed the rally in support of the teachers.

“I know how hard you all work every single day, and how hard it is to go on strike,” Bachelor told the teachers. “This is a union town and we will be here for you every single day and every single picket,” she said, before leading all present in a rousing chant: “Si se puede!”

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Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.

Daniel Figueroa
Daniel Figueroa

Daniel Figueroa writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. Daniel Figueroa escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco.