Oakland Teachers Strike for Higher Wages, More Staff

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – Oakland teachers were exuberant as they protested working conditions flanked by supporters and an impromptu marching band at a downtown rally Thursday afternoon.

But the upbeat atmosphere surrounding the first day of their district-wide strike belies a starker reality:  Teachers, nurses and students in Oakland are struggling to get ahead, especially in working-class neighborhoods like East Oakland, according to educators picketing outside school campuses Thursday.

“It’s becoming increasingly hard to recruit teachers,” Emily Rasmussen, a teacher at Reach Academy in East Oakland, said outside the elementary school Thursday.

Oakland teachers raised picket signs Feb. 21, 2019, demanding an increase in wages and school support staff such as nurses and mental health professionals. (Helen Christophi/CNS)

Rasmussen has taught at Reach for eight years and helps with recruiting. She said low wages coupled with Oakland’s high cost of living, large class sizes and budget cuts make the already under-resourced school unattractive to prospective recruits and drive new hires away. Students, she said, are consequently left with an ever-changing cadre of inexperienced teachers.

“Our students, who 100 percent qualify for free lunch, are disproportionately impacted by a lack of high-quality teachers,” Rasmussen said.

While things like budget cuts affect schools district-wide, she said, schools in affluent neighborhoods are better equipped to handle them. During Oakland’s 2016-2017 budget freeze, Rasmussen said Reach ran out of paper; meanwhile, wealthier schools made up for any shortfalls with PTA funds worth “hundreds of thousands” of dollars. These kinds of resources reduce stress on teachers and make them more likely to stay, Rasmussen said.

“It’s pretty easy” for East Oakland teachers to leave for neighboring school districts with better classroom conditions, she said.

Jamila Harris’ son attends kindergarten at Reach. She said the high levels of crime around the school also drive teachers away.

“In this kind of neighborhood, we have a lot of violence,” Harris said, including violent incidents that have occurred in front of the school on Bancroft Ave. “Those kinds of things affect teacher morale.”

Thursday’s strike comes on the heels of a breakdown in negotiations between the Oakland Education Association – the union that represents Oakland’s 3,000 public-school teachers and nurses – and the Oakland Unified School District. The union wants a 12 percent raise over three years, smaller classes and more nurses and mental health providers. The district counter-offered with a 7 percent raise, citing financial difficulties and plans to slash the budget by $21 million.

The school district did not return a request for comment Thursday. In a Jan. 16 statement, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said despite the district’s challenges, it was “prepared with a comprehensive proposal to reach an agreement.”

“If both sides are committed to settling the contract before a strike occurs – and we are – an agreement can certainly be reached without disrupting the educational experience for students, families and staff,” Johnson-Trammell said.

The impending budget cuts could include layoffs, making classroom conditions worse.

“Castlemont is pretty high-stress,” Vanessa Pope, a 10th grade English teacher at nearby Castlemont High School, said Thursday. Some students deal with tough circumstances outside school like homelessness, she said. Meanwhile, Castlemont has no full-time nurse or therapist to ease student stress. And if a student has a medical emergency and a nurse isn’t on campus, staff call 911 for help.

“Not having a lot of support in one’s personal life makes school more stressful,” said Pope. “To come to a school that isn’t stressful, that has a full-time nurse, that has a therapist to talk to, that has manageable class sizes so teachers aren’t stressed out,” improves the quality of education.

The school district employs just 22 nurses to care for its 36,000 students, according to Ozella Faison-Burns, a part-time nurse who shuttles between Castlemont and two East Oakland elementary schools. That’s down from about 45 nurses in 2001, she said while picketing outside Castlemont Thursday.

Under California law, only nurses can administer insulin at school, Faison-Burns said. Oftentimes, that means students with diabetes must wait for a nurse to arrive on campus to get their insulin. And although some teachers are trained to administer emergency care, a lack of medical training means they can freeze or forget what to do, she said.

“It’s scary if we’re not there or if we can’t get to that student,” Faison-Burns said. “Every moment counts.”

Students, too, say they’re being short-changed. At Thursday afternoon’s rally downtown, La Escuelita seventh-grader Arena Garnica said some of her teachers work two jobs to make ends meet. Her classes are too big and her teachers are constantly changing.

“It affects us because we have to be looking for teachers who are trained,” Garnica said. “Not every kid gets attention.”

Union president Keith Brown echoed that sentiment in a news conference Thursday evening.

According to Brown, 85 percent of union teachers were on picket lines Thursday, with the rest “out working second jobs to make ends meet. Driving Lyft, working at GrubHub.”

Union and school district officials go back to the bargaining table Friday. But Brown encouraged teachers to keep picketing.

“Oakland teachers, our picket lines must be strong tomorrow,” he said. “Strikes are won in the streets, not at the bargaining table.”

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