Oakland School Labor Talks to Resume Next Week By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Friday March 10, 2006

With a shiny red truck and neon green T-shirts, protesters descended on the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) office Wednesday to demand fair contracts for teachers. 

The rally gathered more than 300 teachers, parents, students and community supporters, who donned blindingly bright union T-shirts, and brandished signs calling for an end to the bitter battle over contract negotiations. 

Oakland Board of Education president David Kakishiba, Oakland City Council candidate Aimee Allison and representatives from other labor unions, including the president of the United Teachers of San Francisco, were in attendance.  

Thornhill Elementary School student Theresa Bagby Underwood, 10, mounted the proxy podium—a union board member’s cherry red pickup truck —and called out to the audience, her fist raised in the air “I’m here to support the teachers!” 

Uproarious applause ensued. 

The rally came just a day after district and union representatives agreed to a formal bargaining session next week, for the first time since Jan. 31. 

The district, run by state administrator Randy Ward since 2003, has been negotiating with the teachers’ union for two years. 

It last offered the union a three-year contract with a 4 percent raise doled out over two years, and a cap on healthcare after two years. 

The union wants a 3 percent raise on top of the 4 percent, the latter of which only restores a salary cut teachers took several years ago, the union says. Other demands include increased pay for substitute teachers, restored prep periods and a guarantee that teachers won’t suffer involuntarily transfers to other schools. 

But one of the chief concerns is healthcare. 

Oakland Education Association President Ben Visnick said Thursday the union has already accepted concessions in the bargaining process—namely the piecemeal salary increase—but it won’t budge on healthcare. 

“We don’t want a cap, that’s the bottom line,” he said. 

OUSD Spokesman Alex Katz said the district expends $76 million of a $436 million General Fund budget on benefits, an expense it can no longer afford.  

The association, representing 3,200 district employees, has used a neutral fact-finding report to support its position that the district can indeed shoulder healthcare costs and salary raises. 

But letters issued by the State Department of Education and two other agencies have called the report’s legitimacy into question. 

The letters, released March 6, came from State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, the nonprofit Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, and School Services of California Inc., a private company. They concluded that the district is not financially stable enough to grant all of the union’s demands. 

“In fact, the district is unable to afford a salary increase beyond that which has already been offered,” O’Connell wrote. 

Visnick called the letters “propaganda.” 

“These agencies are biased agencies,” he said, and should not undermine the veracity of the fact-finding report, which was chaired by a Public Employment Relations Board appointee.  

Visnick fears the district could use the letters to vie for a retrogressive deal at next week’s bargaining session. 

Katz said the letters could affect negotiations. 

“If the top three educational agencies are saying (the report) is very flawed, then it might change the discussion,” he said. 

Both sides hope the upcoming talks will yield a tentative agreement. 

Still, the threat of a strike looms. 

Union members will vote March 22 on whether to authorize a strike, which could go into effect 48 hours later.  

A strike that soon isn’t likely, Visnick said.  

All sides concur that a strike is a last resort. 

“I really believe that no one wants to strike,” Katz said. “I know Randy Ward doesn’t want a strike. I know teachers don’t want to strike. Parents certainly don’t want a strike.” 

Parent Amy Tessler agreed.  

“If it ends in a strike it’s going to be very sad,” she said. “But we’ll continue to support our teachers. We won’t send our children to school.”