Students back teachers in one day strike in Oakland
Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – Parents, students and community supporters joined teachers in a day of action April 29, as Oakland Education Association members conducted a one-day strike to protest the Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close and merge schools at the close of school this year and next. The strike marked the latest move by labor and community in months of protests against the closures disproportionately impacting students of color and disabled students.

At a press conference earlier in the week, OEA President Keith Brown called the Unfair Labor Practices strike, which was approved by 75% of teachers who voted, “the next step to stop school closures that will displace thousands of students and disproportionately impact Black students in Oakland.” Brown charged that the school district had “unilaterally set aside” its negotiated 2019 agreement to provide schools with one year of stakeholder engagement before closing or consolidating schools.

Defying teacher and community protests, the OUSD Board of Directors voted in February to close Parker Elementary and Community Day School at the end of this year, to merge RISE Community School and New Highland Academy, and to remove La Escuelita’s middle school grades. Next year, five more schools – Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary and Korematsu Discovery Academy – are to close, while Hillcrest will lose its middle school grades. The Board alleges the moves are necessary because of budgetary shortfalls and declining enrollment, claims challenged by two Board members who have consistently opposed the closures, and by union and community advocates.

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Teachers began the day with early morning pickets at schools throughout the city. A mid-day block party at Lake Merritt was followed by a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of City Hall, where educators and supporters were joined by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who had shut down the Port of Oakland for the day to protest plans for a new Oakland Athletics baseball stadium on port property, and who came out to support the fight for schools.

OEA teacher and substitute teacher representative Sharon Thomas was among those addressing the crowd. “To support the Oakland community impacted by these closures,” she said, “we want to make it known that we are against all of our schools being closed in communities that have mostly Black, Brown and many disabled students.

“We are striking not because we want to, but because we have to. The Board is not listening to us – we want to help them find another way to balance the budget without closing our schools.”

Thomas called on the crowd, “Keep helping us with this fight, because history has shown us that if we don’t fight for ourselves, nobody else will!”

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Fernando, a 15-year-old sophomore at MetWest High School, said he had attended La Escuelita “since he was three years old,” and wants his two younger sisters to have “the same experiences I did in that school. I want them to graduate from there because I know personally how good a school it is.”

Gesturing toward his mother, in the audience, he said she’s “doing an amazing job with raising three children. And with this Board making it harder and harder for her, that’s why I’m here.”

Jamila, whose three children attend Grass Valley Elementary, said one of her sons has Downs Syndrome and must be in a special class. Calling Grass Valley a “model school for special education” with a “very caring” staff, she said OUSD originally wanted to close the school at the end of this year, and only after push-back from the community, decided to give schools for high-needs populations one more year to transition.

“Why do we have to fight for this? Where is the respect?” she asked. “And I’m also trying to say, stop abusing and uprooting our children, stop letting charter schools and gentrification drive out generations of Black and Brown people, and stop letting decades of fiscal mismanagement be the reason our children don’t feel loved and included in their communities.”

Former ILWU Local 10 President Trent Willis connected the longshore workers’ struggles and those of the teachers and school community. “Down at the Port, you have a billionaire who wants to build a playground right where the ILWU longshoremen work,” he said, referring to John Fisher, the billionaire owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team who is also an investor in charter schools. “Up here in the schools, you have the same billionaire who’s making a run on those public resources. And we have some elected officials who are paving the way for the billionaire to do this.”

Willis urged rally goers to join the coalition established earlier this year by teachers and longshore workers, Schools and Labor Against Privatization, or SLAP, “to start holding our elected officials accountable and to protest and to make sure we stop the privatization of Oakland, because it’s all related, and it all adds up to gentrification.”

Wrapping up the City Hall rally before marching through downtown Oakland to OUSD headquarters for the next gathering, OEA President Keith Brown declared, “We did it! We did it for our students, and for our community!

“It’s an honor to be here with ILWU Local 10, and we are fighting together for essential resources for our schools, to stop school closures and to stop the privatization happening here in Oakland … Just think about this: We have a city that is able to fund skyscrapers, able to fund stadiums, but cannot keep our schools open. We are going to keep fighting to make sure our schools stay open!”

With that, the crowd marched off to the second rally, and then to join the Port of Oakland workers at the docks.

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Putting the situation in perspective at the very beginning of the day was Catie Tombs, who teaches humanities at MetWest High School. In a conversation during the early morning picket at the campus shared by MetWest and Westlake Middle School, she said she thinks parents understand that “if we continue to allow school closures, they’re going to grow in numbers. Families are seeing that this could happen to their neighborhood school, or the school they’re about to send their kid to. We’re telling the district, this isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to happen.”

Tombs shared her observations that for younger students, closures can put students on “a quick, slippery slope … because their schools are part of their family identity.” And with older students like those at MetWest, she said, “I don’t think the district understands the narrative they’re creating for students, and whether they feel listened to. We tell our students, if you speak up, organize, put yourself out there, change can be made. It’s crushing when it doesn’t go that way.”

She said she understands there will be fiscal needs and areas for improvement. “But if we’re going to do this important work, we need to do it right, and we need to do it with everybody at the table and talk to the people I feel I work for: the students and families.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

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

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