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Oakland Teachers Strike for Better Schools

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Thousands of teachers began an official strike Thursday over a raft of disputes with the Oakland Unified School District.

Officials with the Oakland Education Association, the union which represents OUSD teachers and support staff, declared the strike after the release of an independent fact-finding report six days ago. Citing a looming fiscal crisis, which OEA calls manufactured, the district said it can’t afford many of the union’s demands.

Teachers, parents and supporters from area communities picketed before sunrise, starting at 6 a.m., continuing in rotating shifts for the next 10 hours at sites as disparate as Prescott School in the Lower Bottoms and Madison Park Academy in Sobrante Park.

The day of action pinnacled on the steps of City Hall in Frank Ogawa Park around midday, where thousands of teachers and supporters thronged the amphitheater before marching on OUSD headquarters a block away.

At City Hall, speakers like National Education Association, an OEA affiliate, Vice-President Becky Pringle led the crowd in chants of “Enough. Enough. Enough.”

Many of the teachers’ strike demands had little to do with usual union beefs like low pay. Rather, several were quick to cite what they saw as schools having been set up to fail due to bulging class sizes and a lack of essential support services to students.

Oakland teachers and supporters get organized for strike rally and march from City Hall on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

Edgar Sanchez, a history teacher at Coliseum College Preparatory Academy and father of two Oakland public schoolchildren, said many of his colleagues’ classrooms were well over the previous 32-student contractual cap. Classes that large only make his job more difficult.

“If you ask any teacher, smaller classes help,” Sanchez said.

Indeed, the recent fact-finding report bears out Sanchez’s grievances. Arbitrator Najeeb Khoury, who issued the findings, said the district’s picture using class-size averages was “deceiving,” stressing the importance of adhering to caps.

“Consequently, I recommend an across-the-board class size reduction of one (1) to be fully implemented by July 2020, with 20 percent of schools having an implementation date of July 2019,” Khoury wrote.

Other teachers cited what they say are unreasonable ratios of students to school nurses and psychologists. Here Khoury agreed as well, referencing 12 unfilled nursing vacancies across the district and recommending the creation of at least three new psychologist positions.

Jazmine Fortes, a third-grade teacher at La Escuelita Elementary, said sometimes a school nurse is the only medical professional her students see.

“Most students don’t have health care,” she said.

Parents and students join Oakland teachers during first day of strike on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

According to Ed-Data.org, 90.6 percent of La Escuelita’s 417 students qualified for free or reduced lunches last school year, the most recent year for which data were available.

At the rally, much of the blame for the shortage of support staff and class-size overages was laid on the influx of charter schools into the district and the money which they siphon out each year, and Khoury agreed.

In recent years, Oakland’s public school enrollment has dropped. Since per-pupil state funding is based on attendance, the decline has led to a consequent decline in funding. But Khoury said the proliferation of charters had exacerbated the problem.

“[W]hen attendance numbers shrink due to declining enrollment, the percentage of attendance generated revenue going to legacy costs increases because there is a smaller population servicing these fixed costs, meaning there is less per pupil money for instruction,” Khoury wrote.

Students hold sign that reads, “This should be a science project not a protest sign” during first day of teachers strike on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

Oakland Education Association union teachers take to the picket line during first day of teachers strike on February 21, 2019 in at Roots International Academy in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

Because charter schools are encumbered with no such costs and per-student funding is the same, the playing field becomes increasingly uneven Khoury said.

This results in less money for things like teachers’ salaries, which all parties agree need to increase. However, OUSD says it can’t afford the 12 percent raise over three years the union wants, offering instead a raise of 5 percent and citing a looming budget deficit forecast to reach $56 million by the 2020-21 school year.

A study published in May 2018 concluded that charter schools cost the district $57.3 million in funding.

Becky Pringle of National Education Association speaks during teachers strike rally at City Hall on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

OUSD’s offer wasn’t good enough for Fortes.

“I’m barely scraping by,” Fortes said, adding that support from her fiancé is the only way she is able to live in Oakland.

“If it wasn’t for him, I would be living with roommates,” said Fortes.

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Nevin Long

Nevin Long

Nevin Long is a writer-reporter, film critic, and East Bay resident since 2009. When he's not slogging it in the rain after a mass demonstration he's writing about, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son, reading contemporary fiction, or kicking back and watching a movie so obscure not even the director's mother has heard of it.