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Teachers’ strike fueled by Bay Area housing crisis: ‘They can't afford Oakland’

Teachers’ strike fueled by Bay Area housing crisis: ‘They can't afford Oakland’
Students, teachers and parents carry signs as they march to the Oakland Unified School District headquarters. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

California’s housing crisis collided with its school funding crisis Thursday, as Oakland teachers went on strike for smaller classes, more nurses and counselors in the schools and wages that will allow them to live in the increasingly expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

An estimated 3,000 members of the Oakland Education Assn. hit the picket line at all 86 schools in the district, which has about 36,000 students. They mobilized in the early morning darkness bearing signs that attested to their twin troubles: “Keep Teachers in Oakland” and “Fight for the schools students deserve.”

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Eighty-five percent of teachers went on strike, according to union president Keith Brown, and large numbers of students stayed away. Only about 90 students showed up at Oakland High School, which normally has an attendance of about 1,500 students. By midafternoon, the school district had not released attendance numbers on the strike’s first day.

Katlyn Ready, 25, has been teaching English at Oakland High School for the last three years. She makes about $48,000 a year. A one-bedroom apartment in the city goes for $2,567 a month, according to rentjungle.com. She and her fiance share a studio within walking distance of her campus. Half of her monthly take-home pay goes for rent.

“I’ve only been here three years,” she said, “but I’ve already seen so many teachers leaving because they can’t afford Oakland.”

Will Corvin, a second-year Oakland High teacher, hit the picket line with Ready on Thursday morning. He makes an annual $47,400 and shares a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with three other people.

“We have to get used to being in the bathroom together,” he said. “Otherwise we are not getting to work” on time.

Oakland teacher salaries are among the lowest in the Bay Area, where rents and home prices have risen dramatically since the end of the Great Recession. As a result, the Oakland Unified School District has struggled to retain teachers. At the same time, the district plans to close up to 24 schools because of financial difficulties.

Janelle T. Scott, an associate professor of education at UC Berkeley, said teachers who want to work in Oakland schools must move farther and farther away from their campuses, which has a negative effect on their quality of life. Some take multiple jobs to afford to teach in the schools they love.

“Teaching in the Bay Area used to be a profession for which home ownership was attainable,” Scott said. “Younger teachers don’t even see that as a possibility.”

But Scott, other education experts and union members were quick to point out that salary is just one of many issues facing schools in California today. And Oakland is not the only district where teachers are mobilizing for smaller classes and better salaries and against charter schools, which they say erode the finances of public school systems.

United Teachers Los Angeles went on strike for six days in January, raising similar issues.Their labor action, coming after strikes in other parts of the country, has emboldened teachers unions in California and heightened debate on public school funding and the impact of charters.

In fact, some UTLA members traveled to Oakland to assist on the first day of the strike. Not surprisingly, Oakland teachers and labor leaders used messaging Thursday that echoed that of their Los Angeles counterparts, with a big emphasis on the common good of the walkout. “Students, this strike is to improve education for you,” Brown said at a news conference Thursday evening.

The Madera Unified Teachers Assn. took a straw poll Wednesday of its members. Close to 100% of the nearly 600 who voted indicated that they were willing to strike if necessary. In an effort to attract and retain qualified teachers, they are asking that their health benefits remain untouched and their salaries increase by 4.75%, according to the California Teachers Assn.

Oakland Unified School District teachers use bullhorns as they picket outside Oakland Technical High School.
Oakland Unified School District teachers use bullhorns as they picket outside Oakland Technical High School. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The Central Unified School District in Fresno is in mediation with its teachers union, which is organizing in case a strike is necessary, said Judee Martinez, president of the Central Unified Teachers Assn. Salary is only part of the impasse.

“Over the past few years, we have tried to bargain for smaller class size,” Martinez said. “We have overflow schools.… We don’t have adequate support for our students — counselors, nurses, psychologists, speech therapists.”

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John Rogers, a UCLA education professor who directs the school’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, sees these labor actions, along with others in Denver and West Virginia, as feeding on one another’s energy, with union members seeing an increase in public support as an opportunity to make their voices heard.

“I think that there’s a lot of pent-up public energy,” he said. “In the last few years, teachers have felt oftentimes under assault by various different messages that questioned their status, questioned their roles. We’ve seen a shift in public opinion.

“There’s a change afoot that we see,” he continued. “And I think teachers probably recognize that there’s an opening for their ideas to be heard.”

In Oakland on Thursday, teachers’ voices came across loud and clear.

With Motown classics blasting in the background and oatmeal raisin cookies on a card table, teachers at Oakland High School mobilized early. By midmorning they were headed toward downtown with hundreds of other teachers, parents, students and other supporters from throughout the district.

They rallied at Frank Ogawa Plaza, many in bright #RedForEd shirts. They were joined by a phalanx of nurses, members of other unions and families with kids in tow. The crowd kept moving, pushing down Broadway, shutting down busy intersections and ending up at the office of the Oakland Unified School District.

Guards locked down the lobby of the building in which the district has offices. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell did not respond to an email request for comment.

The district has offered the teachers a 5% percent raise over three years, less than the 12% the union is seeking.

Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Assn., attended the Oakland rally. She’d also traveled to West Virginia, where teachers held a two-day strike, their second in two years. Pringle said teachers in California and West Virginia have similar messages because they have similar problems.

She said teachers in West Virginia told her they were being forced out of that state by living costs. The message “doesn’t need to be coordinated,” Pringle said. “It’s the same story being played out everywhere.”

She said that whenever she meets with teachers “ they may start out talking about the pay, I mean five minutes, then they start talking about everything else,” such as class size and funding special education

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“You better believe it’s going to continue,” she said “[West Virginia] became a verb. Don’t make me go West Virginia on you.”

Some Oakland churches opened their doors to students so parents would not have to cross picket lines.

At Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church west of downtown, Ira Sandefur came to pick up his two boys, Matthew and Luke, 9 and 11. Sandefur said his boys wanted to go to school Thursday morning, but he does not cross picket lines.

He says he sympathizes with the teachers: “I can see the teachers are like frustrated, because too many kids you can’t watch them all. I think the teachers need a raise.”

Oakland schools will remain open during the strike, with students expected to attend classes, according to the district’s website. It is unknown how long the strike may last, but teachers will continue their walkout Friday, according to the union.

As in Los Angeles, the labor action is disrupting the lives of thousands of parents, but many seem to be supporting the teachers. Octavio Suarez, who has a 10-year-old daughter in Oakland schools, said he sympathized with the teachers’ position, but it was difficult to have his child out of class. “It’s bad,” he said.

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