On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 26, the 14 teachers of Life Academy High School prepared to go on strike; hours later we were relieved that it wasn’t necessary. The negotiations had led to a settlement. We rejoiced. However as details of the settlement became available, we realized that we celebrated too early. The district and the union negotiators had not met the basic needs of teachers and Oakland students.
The teachers of Life Academy came together five years ago to open the district’s first small autonomous high school. Despite budget cuts and staff reductions, we have worked tirelessly to create an innovative and rigorous education for students. Nearly all our teachers work at least 60 hours a week to plan, grade, write grants, and attend continuing education classes. Our high attendance rates, rising test scores, and lack of violence on campus set a new standard for Oakland schools in the flatlands. Last year, our API score rose 92 points, the largest increase of any Oakland high school.
However, our success is at risk. Low teacher compensation is forcing us to choose between careers in Oakland classrooms and alternatives. Many are seriously considering moving to districts with higher pay or leaving the educational field altogether. Oakland students cannot afford to lose their best teachers.
Three years ago, teachers took a 4 percent pay cut in response to the district’s budget deficit. From August of 2003 until March of 2006, inflation has risen by 8.23 percent. Today, teachers are earning in real dollars 12.23 percent less than they were three years ago.
The district’s settlement promised teachers a “raise.” This raise is in fact an illusion. Our raises are not even sufficient to keep pace with inflation nor will they come close to compensating teachers for the loss of income over the past three years.
The district offered us a 2 percent retroactive raise to cover 2005-2006. The following year we will be given a 2.5 percent raise but will be required to contribute .5 percent of the raise to cover rising costs of healthcare (essentially a 2 percent raise). In 2007-2008, the district will again give teachers a 1.75 percent raise minus a .5 percent contribution to healthcare (a net raise of 1.25 percent). Over the course of the contract, our salaries will rise in total by 5.25 percent, but this does not cover the rising cost of living. Inflation is expected to rise 6 percent over the next two years.
At the end of the day, teachers in 2008 will earn roughly 13 percent less in terms of purchasing power than they did three years ago. This settlement is not a raise.
How can a district expect to attract and keep high quality teachers under these conditions? Will parents send their children to a school district hemorrhaging its best teachers? How can the business community have confidence in hiring graduates taught by second tier teachers?
Our staff also takes issue with another misnomer perpetrated by the district and some media sources. Repeatedly, both have made references to teachers receiving “free” healthcare. There is little free about our health care. Healthcare is a part of our total compensation package. We earn our healthcare benefit just as we earn our salary. Oakland teachers work in one of the most challenging educational environments in California while receiving some of the lowest compensation rates in the state.
It is our hope that Oakland citizens will come to understand that their children’s education is at stake if the district’s proposal proceeds. We also encourage the media to debunk the district’s distortion that teachers are receiving a raise or receiving free healthcare under this settlement. The reality is that teachers are making, and will continue to make, far less in real dollars than we did three years ago. We urge the media to not simply report what the district spokesman says and the union’s response, but to truly provide analysis of what this settlement will mean for Oakland students and teachers.
The teachers of Life Academy will vote against this settlement and urge others to follow. The settlement is bad for teachers, it’s bad for students, and it’s bad for Oakland.
More and more students are going to continue to leave Oakland public schools until the district, union, and citizens of Oakland prioritize education funding and have the courage to find a way to create a contract that attracts the best and brightest teachers.
The staff of Oakland’s Life Academy High School: Antonio Acosta, Rich Boettner, Toai Dao, Candace Hamilton, Carlos Herrera, Rebecca Huang, Clifford Lee, Yumi Matsui, Steven Miller, Fred Ngo, Carmelita Reyes, Lois Segal, Jill Thomas, and Preston Thomas.