Oakland Teachers Strike For Better Pay, Many Students Stay Away From Class

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Above Photo: From Eastbaytimes.com

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

OAKLAND — Teachers demanding better pay started a strike Thursday that’s expected to continue Friday and possibly longer, forming picket lines at dozens of Oakland public schools, which few students crossed to attend classes held by fill-in educators and administrators.

Chants such as “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 Oakland before an estimated 3,000 people filled Frank Ogawa Plaza for an afternoon rally.

Teacher union leaders plan to resume negotiations over pay, class sizes and other issues with Oakland Unified officials Friday morning, but there were no calls to end the strike. The last contract expired two years ago.

“This is a historic moment in the city of Oakland, where across the city at 86 school sites, we teamed together, the parents, the students, the community, shut the district down to demand that Oakland students get the schools they deserve,” Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown said to cheers from thousands of supporters at a rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Thousands of teachers and supporters marched from outside City Hall down Broadway to the district’s locked headquarters. Signs of support could be seen across Oakland: Fruitvale’s Manzanita Elementary School was lined with posters reading, “We love our teachers” and “Teachers inspire.”

“They sent this very powerful, very united message, and the district hears it,” district spokesman John Sasaki said. “The district is doing everything it can to meet those demands but doing it in a financially responsible way to make sure that the district is still sustainable.”

For Oakland teachers, this is the third strike in 23 years. In 2010, teachers picketed for one day, and another one in 1996 lasted 26 days. The strike 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.

Multiple Oakland campuses reported that virtually all teachers joined the picket line, and schools had to rely on administrative or fill-in teachers to supervise the few students who showed up.

District officials did not release attendance figures. At a handful of schools, few students were spotted crossing picket lines into their classrooms. Fewer than 10 students walked into Oakland Technical High School by 8 a.m. Even fewer, five, arrived at Manzanita Elementary 15 minutes before the bell rang, and two school buses carried one student each. At Skyline High School, a handful of students arrived before 8:30 a.m.

Picket lines were peaceful, with the exception of East Oakland Pride Elementary School, where authorities said two people damaged a car by jumping on it as a school employee was being dropped off at work around 9 a.m.

At Skyline High School, teachers and supporters began blocking the entrance gates at 6:30 a.m, holding green union signs that read “On strike for more student support.” They allowed a truck carrying food through 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 who was speaking to strikers through a megaphone.

Principals called on Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to close schools until the strike is over out of students’ safety, their union said. Students interviewed at McClymonds, Oakland, Oakland Tech and Skyline high schools reported little learning taking place Thursday.

In West Oakland, about 15 McClymonds High School students showed up, one student said. Watching movies and hanging out is how students spent the day, supervised by district staff, Perez said. At Oakland High, about 20 to 30 students showed up and played basketball for some of the day, according to a student.

Imani Wachera, an Oakland Tech student, watched a documentary and answered a worksheet of questions about the film, then spent time in the library before a physical education class.

“It was a waste of time,” said Wachera, who does not plan to return if the strike continues.

Skyline High students “pretty much did nothing,” said freshman Cecily Bell, 15. “I was just on my phone.”

Instead of going to class, many students joined the picket lines. About 30 of them marched with teachers in front of Oakland Tech just after 9 a.m., and about 20 more waved placards and signs in front of the school in solidarity.

All around Oakland, union members, volunteers and parents staffed city recreation centers where students took classes in martial arts, art, music and math. Volunteers expect the centers to see more students if the strike continues and said some parents likely took the day off from work. Among the volunteers at the Redwood Heights Recreation Center were Skyline, independent studies and home school high school students helping younger learners.

“These kids are really in need of people to be there for them” during the strike, said Skyline senior Noah Mitchell, 17, who supervised children playing outside. “I feel like it’s a duty of mine.”

Grand Lake Theatre offered $1 admission and $1 popcorn at special showings of “Black Panther” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” for Oakland students. On Friday, pre-kindergarten and elementary age students can spend the day for free at Children’s Fairyland. The offer is for up to two children accompanied by a paying adult. ID is required at the gate.

The two-year labor dispute centers around teacher salaries and reducing class sizes. Before talks broke off Wednesday, Oakland Unified offered an overall raise of about 7 percent across two-and-a-half years, plus a 1.5 percent bonus, slightly up from its original offer of 5 percent over three years. Teachers are asking for a 12 percent pay bump. Officials’ latest offer included a one-student reduction in class size caps over the next three years.

The school district argues it cannot afford a 12 percent raise because of an anticipated budget shortfall that could reach $56.6 million by the 2020-21 school year, due in part to a sharp decline in student enrollment from 54,000 to 37,000 over the past 15 years. Union officials say 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 and was joined by Berkeley High School teachers picketing. “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.”

A temporary disruption to students in the school district is worthwhile, said Steve O’Carroll, a special education teacher at Skyline. That’s because the conditions teachers face – lower pay, large class sizes, overburdened counselors, high cost of living – force a high teacher and counselor turnover rate.

“A lot of kids are falling through the cracks because no one knows them,” he said.

Oakland Tech English and history teacher Cristopher Bautista wore a green Starbucks apron to the rally, which ended outside district headquarters on Broadway. Bautista works as a barista on the weekends to get by on a first-year teacher’s salary.

Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in Alameda County and neighboring counties, causing a “retention crisis” in the district, according to a fact-finding report released last week by a state-appointed arbitrator.

“When you become a teacher you pretty much sacrifice everything to do what you need to do, and that’s really sad to say, but that’s just kind of how it has to be, especially in the Bay Area,” Bautista said.

Several politicians stood in support of the striking teachers. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Castro Valley) joined picketers at Manzanita Elementary. Mayor Libby Schaaf’s two children stayed home from their public schools Thursday.

“We are using this moment as an opportunity to talk about labor rights, the importance of education in democratic societies, and the challenges parents and teachers are facing in this current economy,” the mayor wrote in a tweet.

Parents were also among those at the picket lines Thursday, including Doug Hamilton and his 15-year-old son Ben, a Skyline freshman.

“I think this action is long overdue,” said 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 offer is still, “too little, too late.”