OUSD Teachers’ Agreement Reached, But Community Still Divided

Friday April 21, 2006

It was billed as a day of victory. After marathon negotiations, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) reached a tentative contract agreement with the teachers’ union Wednesday and averted a one-day strike. 

But on Thursday, the school community was more divided than ever. 

Union leaders, teachers, students and parents gathered at Peralta Park in Oakland to celebrate the long-awaited end to a two-year battle over contracts negotiations. But the event quickly turned sour when state-appointed OUSD Administrator Randolph Ward showed up, and was subsequently heckled out of the rally. 

“Hey hey, ho ho, Randolph Ward has got to go!” teachers called out as they surrounded him, waving flyers in his face, and trailed him back to OUSD offices.  

Ward was appointed to head up the financially strapped school district in 2003, and many fault the state administrator for escalating bitterness surrounding teacher contracts. 

On Wednesday, students were instructed to stay home from school in the event of a strike scheduled for the following day if a settlement wasn’t reached. But late Wednesday night, Ward and union President Ben Visnick announced a tentative agreement, the terms of which have not been officially released. 

District spokeperson Alex Katz would only say, “The important thing is people are going to have bigger paychecks every month.” 

Union negotiators last called for a 6.5 percent salary raise and an employee contribution of no more than half a percent to increases in medical premiums, among other requests. 

Visnick would not comment on whether those demands were met, only that the agreement is for three years, retroactive to last year, and that it is within the parameters a neutral fact-finding report released in January.  

“This is not a perfect contract,” he said. “This is not an excellent contract—we still need more to educate our students—but it is a fair contract.” 

The OUSD released a statement late Thursday that confirmed that the three-year agreement would provide a 2 percent salary increase retroactive to last July, a 2.5 percent increase beginning this July and a 1.75 percent increase for the following year. The statement did not include details of benefits. 

Rumors about the tentative agreement circulated at the rally. Edna Brewer Middle School teacher Mark Airgood told the Daily Planet that, based on conversation with members of the union bargaining team, employees would have to split the cost of future health care increases, which he says would be more than the 0.5 percent contribution that teachers initially agreed to pay. 

A paper drafted by OEA Executive Board Member Tania Kappner also said the agreement makes concessions on health care. Further compromises were made on counselor-student ratios and teacher seniority rights, the paper said. 

Neither union nor district officials would confirm that. 

At Thursday’s rally, employees were still in the dark about settlement details. Many turned their frustration to union brass. 

“I was hoping to hear him [Visnick] say what the concessions are, and he hasn’t,” said Ife Hill-Roy, who held a sign “OEA, don’t sell us out!” 

Meanwhile, union leaders mounted the park’s stage, praised those involved in the bargaining process and sang songs of solidarity, though only about half the audience joined in.  

“They’re yahooing up there and we don’t know jack-shit,” said parent Stephanie Pearl. Pearl attended the rally with her daughter Kiley, who stayed home from school Thursday in anticipation of a strike. 

Other teachers were confident the union made a sound decision, though they weren’t sure what that decision was. 

“Both sides had to back down somewhat,” said Russell Cohen, a first-grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School. “That’s the nature of compromise.” 

Cohen said he was “ecstatic” the two sides reached a tentative agreement, and firmly believed the union drafted a good deal, otherwise it would not have held out for so long, he said. 

The union’s executive board met last night after press time to work out details of the agreement. The board will take a vote in the next week, then send the agreement to the 3,200-member union, which include teachers, librarians, nurses and others.  

But the battle is far from over, said lead union negotiator David de Leeuw. 

“Many people are relieved it may almost be over, but it’s not all good,” he said. “It may not be ratified.” 

The last tentative agreement reached in the spring of 2005 was rejected by 84 percent of the voting membership, he said. 

De Leeuw has higher hopes for the current agreement. 

“It leaves us in decent shape on basic economics and other issues,” he said. “Nobody expected we’d get a fantastic contract.”