Teachers Declare Victory, Fight Continues Against Budget Cuts and School Closings

Striking teachers take over the ground floor of the State Building in Oakland, Thursday, Feb . 28. Photo courtesy of https://boingboing.net

By Ken Epstein

Oakland teachers and students went back to school this week after union members voted Sunday afternoon to end their strike, deciding that they had won as much as they could in the seven-day  walkout and expressing determination to continue to fight the school district’s budget cuts, school closures, the sell-off of public school property and merging of school functions with the charter school industry.

The vote in favor of the new contract, which expires at the end of June 2021, demonstrated both the confidence of teachers in their recently elected union leadership and the growing consciousness and commitment of the teachers to continue the fight over the issues raised during the strike.

Large numbers of teachers voted against the agreement, an expression of their willingness to continue the strike, and many spoke out on social media about their fury at what they see as the Board of Education’s and district administration’s  continuing betrayal of the needs of teachers and students.

The contract was passed Sunday in two parts. The first part, which dealt mostly with a 3 percent retroactive bonus for 2017-18, was approved by a vote of 64 percent yes, 36 percent no.

The second agreement, including salary increases for 2018-19 and 2020-21, was approved by 58 percent yes vote to 42 percent no.

Over the life of the contract, the union won a 11 percent salary increase plus a 3 percent bonus, considerably more than what the school district was offering pre-strike –

only 7 percent over four years, and a 1.5 percent bonus, according to the union. The full settlement is available at https://oaklandea.org/updates/

At a press conference Friday announcing the proposed settlement, Oakland Education Association (OEA) President Keith Brown said, “Educators – supported by parents, supported by labor, supported by the community – prevailed. Our power in the streets prevailed. Our love for our students …. and our determination for a better future for the students of Oakland prevailed.”

“Through the power of the strike, the people of Oakland have spoken,” Brown said. “We outlined a very clear choice during the strike: either you are on the side of the students, parents and community who want to improve education for our students, or you are on the side of the wealthy who seek to privatize education and close schools and take away needed resources from our students.”

“More people are standing on the side of the students because of the power of the strike, which is the righteous side.”

One of the most outstanding achievements of the strike was the overwhelming citywide and Bay Area-wide support for the teachers. Almost all parents kept their children home during the strike, costing the district over $1 million a day in lost funding. Faith leaders, students groups, community groups and other unions backed the strike, providing food and organizing strike solidarity schools, and many workers and parents joined the picket lines and mass marches.

Another important feature of the strike movement, which may impact future local battles over public education, was the massive enthusiastic and militant participation of teachers, picketing, marching  and taking over the ground floor of the State Building in downtown Oakland.

Watching teachers dancing, chanting, singing strike songs, boldly defiant and community loving, Oaklanders witnessed a new generation of grassroots teacher leaders being born.

Immune to the street enthusiasm, the Oakland school board is holding to its support for austerity. On the first day back to school on Monday, the school board held a hurried meeting to authorize $20.2 million in deep budget cuts that were demanded by their state overseers: the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) and County Supt. of Education Karen Monroe.

Over 100 classified (non-teaching) employees are losing their jobs including secretaries, computer technicians and school security officers. Board members also voted to cut the Restorative Justice program, Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement program and five foster case manager positions.

Hundreds of angry students packed the school board meeting fighting to save these programs and are talking about a student strike.

These cuts are part of a series of budget reductions and school closures that are being required by the state over the next several years.  Several board members blamed teacher salary increases for the need to slash the budget,  though state and county representatives have been pushing for the cuts openly at least since last year, regardless of an improved teacher contract.

In moving ahead with their austerity plan, the board and the administration are relying on their interpretation of AB 1840, which was passed last year with the backing of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who has never been a friend of public education in Oakland, going back to when he was the city’s mayor.

Under the terms of AB 1840, the district will receive a little extra funding, and in exchange OUSD will make drastic cuts to educational programs and close and sell or lease schools over the next few years.

The law seems to follow the spirit of recommendations made in reports produced by a pro-privatization research group, Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which calls for districts to adopt a series of actions “to address financial challenges, including closing underutilized schools, selling unneeded property … reforming pension agreements, and ending unfunded salary commitments”

The CRPE backs “district-charter-state grand bargains,” whereby the state would give funding to entice districts to “work in partnership with charters… or give charter schools access to buildings as part of a broader deal to stabilize district finances.”

Published March 7, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post