Page One

Report: Oakland May Be Closer to a Teacher Strike By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday January 27, 2006

A report on negotiations between the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Education Association has brought the city closer to a teacher strike or closer to a settlement. 

Ben Visnick, president of the 3,200 member OEA, is not yet willing to say which. 

“We’re going back to the bargaining table on Saturday,” Visnick said late this week. “I’ll know better Saturday night.” 

The OEA plans a 9 a.m. Saturday rally at the OUSD headquarters, 1025 Second Ave. in Oakland, to support their bargaining position. 

Last May, OEA members overwhelmingly rejected a tentative contract agreement reached between the OEA bargaining team and the 43,000 student OUSD. Teachers last held a strike in Oakland in 1996. 

On the issue of health care benefits, the union wants the district to continue to fully fund worker health costs, while the district wants to impose a ceiling on how much money it spends on each district worker. 

The chairman of the fact-finding panel recommended that the two sides split the difference between their two proposals. 

In its analysis, the three-member fact-finding panel, made up of district and union representatives and a neutral arbitrator serving as chairman, found that Oakland’s education district is in a grave employment situation with an average 30 percent teacher turnover each year, and “is not competitive in attracting and retaining quality teachers or substitutes due in large part to low pay.” 

“According to the district,” the report noted, “exit interviews with teachers to determine the reasons for their early termination of employment reported general frustration attributed to working conditions in Oakland … low pay and greater opportunities for professional growth and promotions in other school districts.” 

The report added that while district officials wished to provide substantial teacher pay increases, it could not do so because “its financial situation is still grave.” 

The report concluded, however, that the union presented “persuasive, credible and verifiable evidence” that OUSD had “an improved financial liability” to fund a requested pay increase of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent. 

In a dig at the state-run Oakland school district, the report said that “much of the District’s financial data presented at the fact finding hearing was often incomplete, inaccurate and unverifiable; reflective more of its ongoing internal accounting problems.” 

OEA members—including K-12, adult education, and early childhood regular and substitute teachers, nurses, psychologists, counselors, librarians, and speech therapists—have been working without a contract since June of 2004. The major sticking points between the OEA and the district, according to the fact-finding report, involve health benefits and the district’s enrichment program. Agreement has been reached on raises, as well as a provision to reopen salary negotiations for the next budget year. 

Randolph Ward, the state-appointed administrator who operates the Oakland Unified School District under the authority of California State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, can legally impose the district’s proposed contract terms and conditions on the union as early as Feb. 2, an action that might directly lead to an immediate strike vote by the OEA. 

But Visnick said that while Ward possesses the power to impose such terms and conditions, it would be “silly for him to do so after only one follow-up bargaining session. I think that would hurt him politically. The community is moving towards our side.” 

Visnick said that he has been contacted in recent days by Oakland mayoral candidates Nancy Nadel, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Ron Dellums, all asking what might be done to lend their support. 

“There is also political pressure on the state superintendent,” he added. “The California Teachers Association has not yet endorsed O’Connell for re-election in part because of the actions he has taken in Oakland.” 

Both sides have been preparing for a strike, with teachers carrying green “Fair Contracts—Quality Schools” placards and chanting “real substitutes don’t scab” marching to the Oakland Airport Hilton last Monday to picket an OUSD job fair designed to sign up workers to act as strikebreakers. 

Representatives for Randolph Ward, were not available for comment for this article. 

But OEA President Visnick says it is too soon to tell how close the district is to a teachers’ strike. 

“I’m not Randy Ward,” Visnick said. “He runs the district by himself, but I don’t run the OEA alone. I’ve got a 15 member executive board to answer to, and a 150 member rep council. The OEA is among the most vocal, democratic unions in the country. Our members speak their minds. We probably have every left-wing tendency imaginable. All of our members will get the chance to give their input before we make a final decision.” 

Visnick said a strike would need to be supported by “a substantial majority of our membership … in order to be viable.”›