OUSD Contract Talks Begin on Tense Note

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday February 01, 2008

The potentially volatile Oakland Unified School District teacher contract negotiations—in the midst of a state budget crisis and as the district transitions from state takeover to local control—bubbled to the surface Wednesday night when shouting Oakland teachers forced a brief but tense administrator-board meeting recess while demanding that their contract proposal presentation not be bumped down lower on the agenda. 

School board members and state administrator Vincent Matthews sat in stony silence, staring straight ahead, while teachers chanted “Teachers have the right to speak! Teachers have the right to speak!” School Board President David Kakishiba eventually relented after consultation with Oakland Education Association (OEA) President Betty Olsen-Jones, allowing the teacher presentation to move forward immediately, but not before he himself had to shout down repeated interruptions of his remarks with calls to “Listen!” before finally being able to announce that he was giving in. 

The brief confrontation began after Kakishiba announced he was moving up a report on the financial implications of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed state budget cuts, ahead of the OEA and district contract proposal presentations. 

Teachers later charged that district officials wanted to present the potential grim repercussions to the district of the Schwarzenegger budget cuts first, in order to blunt the impact of OEA’s sweeping requests for pay raises, increased support services, and lower class sizes. 

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first round of OUSD negotiations on a contract that expires in July of this year. 

Despite the fact that OUSD Director of Labor Management and Employee Relations Troy Christmas tried to smooth over the contract disagreements by saying that “even when [the district and the teachers union] differ on methods, my experience has been we’re working towards a common purpose,” the OEA and OUSD management appeared far apart on their initial proposals. 

Saying that “we’re presenting a bold proposal” and “we’re tired of having to continue to say that we are going to do more with less,” OEA President Olsen-Jones gave district officials what she called “demands” that included, among other things, a 20 percent across-the-board teacher salary increase, a freeze on any teacher payment on health insurance premiums, maximum class sizes of 20 students in both elementary and secondary schools, decreased caseloads for school nurses and school counselors, and a guarantee of a library and librarian for all district schools. 

OUSD pointedly played close-to-the-vest in its own proposal. On compensation, the district’s proposal said only that “within budgetary constraints, adjust compensation to best recruit and retain quality educators and supporting personnel,” and on health benefits, that “changes to this section will be proposed to the joint Health Benefits Improvement Committee.” The OUSD proposal was silent on the issue of increased support services. 

But in his presentation to the board, OUSD Labor Management Director Christmas appeared to throw cold water on any increased teacher compensation, saying that while “all of us in here believe education is underfunded,” the district “needs to ensure that our expenses do not exceed our income.” More directly, Christmas told board members that district revenue between 2002 and 2007 “did not go up as fast as teacher compensation.” 

The two sides are now scheduled to go into private contract negotiations. 

The public’s ability to sort out the two contract proposals was made more difficult Wednesday night by the discovery that agenda documents posted on OUSD website are not currently visible on a large number of computers, a possible violation of California’s open records Brown Act. 

OUSD used to provide hard copies of agenda background documents at board meetings, but stopped the practice when the district began attaching links to such documents on its online meeting agendas. When a reporter informed OUSD Board Secretary Edgar Rakestraw Wednesday night that agenda that the background documents could not be viewed on his Mac computer, Rakestraw said that the district configured its website to be used on PC computers using an Internet Explorer browser, and any inability to download or even view the documents was “the fault of the individual computer.”  

Immediately afterwards, however, Board President Kakishiba informed Rakestraw that the agenda background documents were not available on the PC computer placed by the district on the board table for his use during board meetings. A similar problem was later reported during the meeting by a citizen attempting to view the same agenda documents supplied by the district in the audience section of the board room. 

Rakestraw said he would look into the problem.