Oakland teachers, who have been working without a contract for a year, gave a new meaning to school board drama last night; they greeted the new superintendent and the school board behind theater masks. According to union president Betty Olson-Jones, the masks were “a visual representation of the state administration from a teachers perspective.”
“Teachers have been treated like cogs in a wheel, like pawns on a chessboard,” she said, before adding that “A teacher’s working conditions are a child’s learning conditions.”
So, yes, plenty of familiar rhetoric, but there were a number of new voices, too. Teachers talked about larger class sizes this fall, the scarcity of special needs aides, new testing for kindergartners (timing how fast they can read the alphabet), losing great teachers to better-paying school districts, and the challenges posed by high staff turnover.
A teacher at an elementary school in the hills was so choked up she could barely get her story out: The school secretary, who apparently was being paid late, had just had a lock put on her apartment because she wasn’t able to make the rent.
On school financing: The teachers made a case for the new superintendent, Tony Smith, and school board to change or do away with Oakland’s school budgeting system, which was designed to give schools more flexibility and autonomy in spending. Some love “Results-Based Budgeting,” and some hate it. It’s controversial, because not only is each school responsible for setting its own budget, but its actual teacher salaries come out of its bottom line. So if a school has a bunch of new teachers on the lower end of the salary scale, it has more money left over for other things.
Union leaders — who are, for the most part, veteran teachers — say principals are under pressure to hire more new, lower-paid teachers so they have more money for other expenses. (Principals: Is this true?)
On charter schools: No surprises here. The publicly funded, independently run (and in Oakland, union-free) charter schools were blasted by one speaker after the next. California Connections Academy, a home-based, online charter school model that wants to open a Bay Area headquarters in Oakland, took a good deal of public ridicule. (“I really thought I had heard everything, seen everything, until I heard the last presentation,” Olson-Jones told the board.)
Some bargaining background: In late June, just before the new superintendent started and the board regained much more of its governing authority, then-State Administrator Vince Matthews declared impasse in contract negotiations, a move that rankled the union. Impasse means a neutral mediator steps in and determines whether an agreement can be hashed out, or whether fact-finding should begin.
There is a pretty big gulf between the two sides, at least with salary. The union is asking for a 15 percent pay raise, across the board – it originally asked for 20 percent — and the district has proposed a 3 percent cut.