Oakland Teachers’ Contract Meets Mixed Reception

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 28, 2006

Reviews of a tentative contract agreement for Oakland’s teachers are decidedly mixed. 

Negotiators for the Oakland Education Association (OEA), representing 3,200 teachers, nurses, librarians and others, settled a tentative three-year deal on the eve of a scheduled walkout April 20, hoping to end a two-year battle for fair contracts. But that prospect is on shaky ground as details of the agreement emerge—though official contract language is not yet public--and teachers must decide whether to accept the compromises.  

“Everyone agrees there are parts of this that are really not good,” said OEA bargaining team chair David de Leeuw. “But the question is, are the good things good enough?” 

The tentative agreement offers an overall salary hike, raises the wage for substitute teachers, increases the ratio of students to counselors, and ends fully funded health care. The contract also spells out policy on teacher transfers and preparation periods. It is retroactive to July 1, 2005. 

Terms reached on substitute pay and salary are a straightforward union gain, de Leeuw said. Salaried employees would earn a 6.25 percent raise over three years, of which 4 percent restores a previous cut. For substitutes, wages would increase from $111 to $118 a day, a rate that would increase with more days worked.  

Health care was a major bone of contention during negotiations, as the state administrator-run Oakland Unified School District insisted teachers share the cost of medical expenses, while the union endeavored to maintain full coverage. 

The tentative settlement offers free health care the first year, then calls on union members to contribute a half a percent of their salaries toward medical premiums, a model consistent with findings of a neutral fact-finding report. The union used the report as a basis for its demands at the bargaining table. 

On the last day of the contract, the funding apparatus would change, requiring teachers to pay 4 percent of the total cost of health care but no more than $700 a year. 

This is a higher contribution rate, “but it’s not a huge amount of money,” said de Leeuw. “It won’t do in our members.” 

Edna Brewer Middle School teacher Mark Airgood said it sets a dangerous precedent. Once the district enacts a new contribution formula, it will be difficult to reverse.  

“If we set that precedent, it’s very hard to get these things back,” he said. “It’s an automatic escalator.” Airgood is voting no on the tentative agreement. 

Compromise over elementary school prep periods is a questionable, de Leeuw said. Teachers would continue to have staffed preparation time, but financial support would come from school sites and a parcel tax, not the general fund. 

The logic, he said, is to push schools to spend their funds effectively. But some union members fear that schools wouldn’t bother with teacher prep time if they’re forced to use their own money. 

Increasing the student-counselor ratio from 500-to-1 to 700-to-1 uses a similar rationale, de Leeuw said. Schools would be encouraged to use parcel taxes and site funds to reduce that ratio. 

Castlemont High School math teacher Jack Gerson said his biggest fear is proposed policy on teacher transfers. According to the settlement, when the district shuts down a school or teachers are involuntarily transferred, they are given five choices from a list of priorities. If turned down for a position, they can go through an appeals process. 

Gerson complains that the arrangement gives the district too much power; bargaining team member Bill Balderston agrees.  

“It was not the language we wanted,” he said, but he doubts members will reject the settlement based on that fact alone. 

The last tentative agreement included a similar clause and was rejected by 84 percent of voting OEA members. 

The union’s 15-member executive board was scheduled to take a position on the settlement Tuesday, but after nearly five hours of debate, directors had gone over only about half the contract, de Leeuw said. A second meeting was scheduled for Thursday after press time. Once a recommendation is drafted, OEA members will obtain the full details of the tentative agreement.  

Generally, when the board declines to recommend a tentative agreement, members also reject it, de Leeuw said. 

Balderston, who is on the board, is confident fellow directors and the broader membership will vote “yes.” 

“I’m going to vote to recommend this,” he said. “But it’s qualified support. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. At this point in time, it gives us breathing room.” 

Oakland Technical High School P.E. teacher Josh Fuchs said he’s ready to put a stop to the chaos that’s plagued the district since he arrived three years ago, but he won’t make a decision on the contract until he sees it. 

“My basic feeling is, we’re here for the students and we have to get this settled,” he said. “But I understand teachers want to look out for their livelihood.””