Oakland school board cancels meeting, citing fear of safety as teachers picket outside

OAKLAND — With hundreds of picketing teachers and supporters gathered outside and fearing for its safety, the Oakland school board cancelled its meeting Wednesday, putting off a decision on whether to cut millions of dollars from the district’s budget.

“Everything is cancelled,” school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge told this news organization. She said board president Aimee Eng canceled the meeting.

For the past 24 hours leading up to the meeting, concerns have been growing about trustees’ safety, Hinton Hodge said. Anger and frustration has been escalating on all sides in a teachers strike that’s now extended through a fifth day.

Hinton Hodge said she has been so fearful she even brought a friend with her to walk into the meeting. She said the board had received pressure to not attend the meeting and cross the picket line. In a response to one such email, which Hinton Hodge provided to this news organization, she stated she had a job to do.

“Crippling the District brings you pride and national recognition but after this strike locally we will — some of us will be making demands that our children are centered and get all they deserve. We will be cleaning up,” she wrote. “Unintentional consequences will be heavy. Our children have become collateral damage.”

Hundreds formed a picket line surrounding La Escuelita Elementary School, where the school board meeting was scheduled to take place.

Chaz Garcia, vice president of the Oakland Education Association, dismissed concerns that anyone’s safety was at risk.

“Do these look like threatening people?” she asked. “They’re dancing in the rain. People are out here exercising their right to be on strike and picket and if somebody chooses to cross the picket line that’s their decision, we would never physically harm anyone or touch them. I think they’re more concerned about their political safety and that’s fine.”

Garcia added that the school board, “unfortunately, has not heeded our request to reschedule the meeting this evening. … We are in the midst of contract negotiations, and their continuing to hold the meeting is irresponsible and will jeopardize the ability to settle a fair contract for our students.

“Because they did not heed our request to change the meeting date, we’re out here in force, picketing around the building,” she added. “And any school board director who crosses the picket line is directly disrespecting the wishes of not just teachers, but the community and all of labor in Oakland. As such, they’re showing that they do not care what the community is calling for. And if they do have future political aspirations, certainly they will not have the support of labor.”

An Oakland Unified statement released after the meeting’s cancellation says, “The Board was scheduled to vote on budget reductions this evening. These reductions are needed to prioritize investing in a raise for our Oakland Education Association (OEA) members that will help students and teachers return to school as soon as possible.

“Unfortunately, the teachers’ union (OEA) prevented the meeting from happening by directing members to picket ‘until meeting cancelled.’ We are disheartened by tactics that directly interfere with the District’s ability to give the teachers a raise, and get students and teachers back into classrooms.

The district also revealed that on Monday, it had upped its offer to an 8 percent raise over three years and a 2 percent bonus.

“Collectively, we could end this strike now. We look forward to receiving a new proposal from OEA and remain hopeful that we will reach an agreement soon,” the statement adds.

Contract negotiations had resumed Wednesday in Assemblyman Rob Bonta’s office after having stretched from all day Tuesday into 3 the next morning, Garcia said at a rally earlier Wednesday at Oakland International High School.

At the rally, she encouraged those on the picket lines as they entered their fifth day.

“We’re here, day five of the strike, and I know five days of striking has been a little tiring. But guess what? We only have to last one day longer than the district,” she said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has been helping to facilitate the talks all week. “Being that it wasn’t going anywhere before and talks were ending, clearly his presence is helping,” Garcia said.

At one point Wednesday morning, the state building on Clay Street was occupied by families and children supporting the strike. They held signs including one that read “fund our schools”  and played drums in the lobby.

The school board was expected to consider cutting at least $21 million from the 2019-20 budget to help stave off a growing shortfall, a move that could involve laying off more than 100 employees and slashing school sites’ discretionary funds.

The district says an average of 6 percent of its 37,000 students have shown up to class during the first four days of the strike, costing it a net loss of $1 million per day.

It’s unknown whether the union — which represents 3,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and other staff — has budged from its original demand of a 12 percent raise over three years.

The raise proposed by the union alone would cost the district $60 million over three years, district officials said. The district had countered with an offer of a 7 percent ongoing raise and a 1.5 percent one-time bonus; the offer also addresses class sizes and support staff but falls short of the union’s demands.

District officials have maintained the offer is the best they can do. If they go higher, they will have to cut more than the $21.75 million from the 2019-20 budget as proposed.

The district faces a budget shortfall that will reach an estimated $56 million by the 2020-21 school year if no reductions are made, and is under tight fiscal oversight by the Alameda County Office of Education, as well as the state — which the district still owes more than $30 million after going into receivership in 2003.


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