Oakland High teachers walk out to protest pay; district considers discipline

More than 100 Oakland teachers and students ditched school Monday to protest teacher pay and larger class sizes, an illegal action that could be a precursor to a district-wide strike.

Oakland High School teachers called in sick or took a personal day in an unauthorized walkout despite threats from district officials that they could face discipline or a pay cut.

They gathered in front of Oakland City Hall with educators from Fremont High and Madison Park Academy, carrying signs reading “Chop from the top” and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, where did all the money go?” in their campaign for a better contract.

“We want lower class sizes,” said English teacher Chris Johnston. “We want a living wage for teachers so they can live in the community.”

The walkout was considered a wildcat strike, a rogue act not sanctioned by the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union. That said, it’s clear that the anger among teachers is starting to boil over given the lack of a contract, said union President Keith Brown.

“I really understand the frustrations that our members have with the district,” he said. “It’s time that our elected officials, our school board members, really seriously begin to invest in our classrooms and students.”

The teachers have been working under an expired contract since July 2017. District and union officials remain far apart on wages and other conditions. Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki said the district’s most recent offer was for a 5 percent raise over three years, while the teachers are standing by their proposal of a 12 percent raise over the same period.

Negotiations are now in a fact-finding phase, which could ultimately lead to a strike vote.

Brown said that a strike could come as early as mid-February.

“We’re willing to do what it takes to improve the learning conditions for our students and we are ready to strike if necessary,” he said.

While district officials warned teachers that the walkout was an illegal action, an estimated 75 of Oakland High’s 90 teachers participated, according to the walkout organizers.

Sasaki said top officials were considering whether to discipline teachers who participated in the walkout, perhaps by docking their pay.

He said that the district is still committed to the bargaining process and a fair contract.

Yet the district is grappling with a budget crisis, and the school board has been forced to address a $30 million shortfall, which could mean a range of cuts as well as school consolidation and closures. An independent analysis earlier this year said the district was in “financial distress.”

At the rally Monday, teachers complained that their salaries are among the lowest in the county, although their entire compensation package — which includes no-cost health premiums for employees and families — is comparable to other districts.

The starting salary for a first-year teacher in Oakland is $46,570 and top pay is $83,723, with employer-paid pension, health care and other costs adding about $30,000 in additional compensation.

The Oakland High teachers, however, said the one-day walkout also reflected a laundry list of complaints, including large class sizes, especially for special education teachers.

Amy Wilder, who has taught special education for 11 years, said that there are too many students and not enough support.

“It just makes the job impossible,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of problems retaining teachers.”

She said she called in sick Monday in protest and would accept any consequences, saying it was an important act of civil disobedience.

Many teachers said they were proud to see their students at the rally and noted that it was an educational lesson for them in community organizing and civic engagement.

The students said teachers didn’t ask them to participate, but several said they wanted to support their instructors even if it meant they were truant for the day.

“We really love our teachers,” said Paw Wah, a sophomore at Oakland High. “It’s like a family to us.”

Sophomore Sir Ronald Hamlet IV said that he showed up to support his teachers, all of whom were at the rally.

“They do so much for us,” he said. “They could easily go to other school districts and earn more money, but they don’t because they love us.”

While about two dozen students attended the rally, hundreds of their classmates reportedly stayed home from school as well. District officials, however, were still tallying teacher and student absences. District administrators and substitute teachers were filling in for the day.

Sasaki, who appeared at the rally outside City Hall, told teachers and their supporters that the district received their message.

“We hear you, we want to work with you, and we will continue to talk to you,” he said.

A teacher with a megaphone responded with a question for the crowd.

“Are you ready to strike?” he asked.

Teachers responded with a booming “Yes!” that echoed through Frank Ogawa Plaza.

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