News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
February 16, 2023
By Michael Sebastian
As the Oakland Education Association bargains a new contract, it has raised a comprehensive set of common good demands to help strengthen Oakland’s public schools and support students. OEA rallied hundreds of teachers and community members in support of these demands at the February 8 school board meeting.
At the rally outside La Escuelita elementary school ahead of the board meeting, participants heard speeches from OEA teachers and parent leader Pecolia Manigo, who fired up the crowd with chants of “Who’s schools? Our schools!” Manigo, a leader of the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN) and recent candidate for school board, said “we can get this confused, that this is just about a contract. The contract is a representation of what we want in our schools.”
As the school board meeting opened to the public, hundreds flowed into the gymnasium where the meeting was held. Ismael Armendariz’s suggestion to “cut pork at the top” sparked chants of “chop from the top,” referencing the top-heavy finances of the district’s budget, where the superintendent makes $294,000 and other administrators pull in large salaries which divert money away from schools, teachers, and children. As OEA observed in a pamphlet in 2019: “OUSD is ‘broke’ on purpose so billionaire influencers can make financial arguments for closing neighborhood schools, refusing living wages for teachers, and denying students the support they need in order to learn and grow.” The chronic lack of resources has less to do with funding and more to do with who will foot the bill. The budget will either be balanced on the backs of black and brown students, as Armendariz said in the gymnasium, or the district will need to “chop from the top”.
As the meeting continued and the floor opened for public comment, attendees spoke about the dangerous consequences of chronically underfunded schools. One teacher spoke via Zoom about finding guns in school lockers, and a student report back showed that roughly half of high school students in OUSD don’t feel safe at the school that they attend. These problems arise because schools are understaffed, which is why OEA is calling for smaller class sizes, more nurses, counselors, psychologists and school librarians. Reinvesting in our schools and fully staffing them is the only way to create safe and productive learning environments for children.
Part of the reason that Oakland schools are so understaffed is that teachers in Oakland are substantially underpaid. Oakland is one of the most expensive cities to live in the state, and one of the lowest paid for teachers in Alameda county. “Living wages continue to be an issue in Oakland,” said OEA president Keith Brown in Edsource. “An experienced teacher can move to Hayward Unified and make $28,000 more overnight.” This results in high turnover, with one in four teachers leaving the district each year. In order to increase teacher retention rates, provide quality teachers for students, and maintain a stable learning environment in public schools, Oakland Unified will need to increase salaries so that teachers don’t leave the district or change careers to meet cost of living in the Bay Area.
Finally, OEA wants to reinvest in the Community School model, which has received over $4 billion in new state funding over the past two years. Engaging parents and communities so that schools become places where neighborhoods can flourish, community schools will provide needed resources for families, organizing in and out of school to make sure that students can thrive. This will help the district fulfill another one of OEA’s common good demands, a Reparations 4 Black Students resolution which aims to eliminate the black student opportunity gap in literacy and educational outcomes, and provide resources for black families who predominantly live in the city’s most disadvantaged communities.
Combining the teachers’ requests for living wages and better working conditions with resources that will help Oakland children thrive, OEA is mindful that without the support of the community most of their demands will go unmet. The fight for better teacher wages, better working conditions, and better schools for children are completely intertwined. This is why the union fought so hard to save Oakland schools from closure, culminating in the 4-3 vote in January to overturn last year’s decision to close five elementary schools. This is also why it continues to fight to hold on to these victories and set the stage for more gains for our schools, children, and communities in the future.
Join teachers at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater on Wed, March 15 at 2pm to demand that OUSD bargain in good faith.
Michael Sebastian is a member of the steering committee of East Bay DSA.