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Weary Oakland Parents Divided Over Whether to Support Teachers in Looming Strike

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An older Black man stands outside at a rally, with a sign hanging from his neck that says: 'Fund Public Schools.'
Oakland teachers and students listen to speakers during a rally as part of a one-day walkout on April 29, 2022, to protest Oakland Unified School District's planned closures. Teachers represented by The Oakland Education Association may go on strike once again on Thursday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As Oakland teachers threaten to once again go on strike as soon as Thursday, parents in the district say they are split over whether to support them this time around.

Part of an ongoing push for higher wages and smaller class sizes, the walkout could potentially strand some 34,000 students for at least one day. It would mark the third teacher walkout in just over a year, a track record that Lakisha Young, founder of the parent-run organization The Oakland REACH, calls “excessive.”

“They always strike during a bargaining agreement,” Young said, noting that she supports teachers’ demands, but not their tactics. “Enough is enough.”

Oakland teachers most recently launched a one-day wildcat strike in March, which was not authorized by the union, over staffing cuts and what they called the school board’s unwillingness to address teacher pay. And in April 2022, educators staged a one-day walkout over the board’s decision to permanently shutter multiple schools in the district.

Young said students and their families have already suffered from enough disruption during the pandemic, when schools were forced to operate remotely. Last year, just over a third of students in the district tested proficient in reading levels. In math, it was just over a quarter.

“In a district where most kids can’t read and kids can’t do math, we need to have every kid in the building doing work every day,” Young said. “They should not be missing school.”

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Other parent leaders, however, said they would stand in solidarity with teachers, even if that meant having to scramble to find alternative options for their kids.

“We see the conditions teachers are experiencing,” said Pecolia Manigo, a parent and former school board candidate. “We know how difficult it is to recruit teachers, even ones who live in our lovely city of Oakland.”

The Oakland Education Association has argued that the teachers it represents receive inadequate support and some of the lowest salaries in the region, even after modest gains in recent years. Meanwhile, just 57% of teachers are assigned to classrooms they are actually credentialed to teach – one of the lowest ratios in the state, according to EdSource.

“We promise you we’ve done everything we can to avert this strike,” interim union president Ismael Armendariz said during a Monday evening press conference announcing the potential walkout. “The district has truly failed our students, and the time for us to act is now.”

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The union accuses the district of bargaining in bad faith and repeatedly failing to show up, or arriving late, to bargaining sessions.

The district did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement it issued Tuesday, officials said they had offered teachers a fair contract that would provide raises of up to 22%.

“Our teachers want a pay increase, and we agree they need it,” the district said. “We are committed to continuing to work with our labor leaders to discuss their salaries and support services for our students without the need for a strike. Let’s not interrupt our students’ learning.”

But Samia Khattab, an OUSD teacher-librarian on the union’s bargaining team, says this isn’t just about the money.

“Compensation is one out of the 20 proposals that we put forth,” she said. The other sticking points concern mental health support for students, smaller special education classes, more services for students experiencing homelessness and improvements to physical infrastructure, among other asks.

“It is ultimately our goal that the contract that we hopefully will ratify soon will reflect the values that we hold in order to have racially just, safe and high-quality schools in Oakland,” Khattab said. She added that state and county education officials, including California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, had gotten involved in negotiations today to help avert a strike.

Last week, after the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, talks between the two sides resumed in earnest, but Vilma Serrano, the union’s lead negotiator, said more work was needed.

“We have been making some progress,” Serrano said. But, she added, “We’re still needing to see movement on our common good demands to really support our community and our students in other ways beyond just our normal teaching and learning.”

Robert Daves, a former OUSD English teacher, said low salaries and lack of support were big reasons he left the district in the spring of 2020, before leaving the profession altogether.

“If you’re part of a team that is bringing resources to address problems, then you kind of feel like you’re all in the trenches together,” said Daves, who now works as a field chemist, and is the parent of a middle school student in the district. “But if you feel like you’re a lone voice in the wilderness, it can be isolating and lonely to be in a classroom.”

He said that although a strike would be an inconvenience for his family, he intended to fully support his former colleagues.

“I don’t feel like this is out of greed,” Daves said. “This is out of [teachers] wanting smaller class sizes, wanting a wage that allows them to live in the Bay Area and not be broke all the time.”

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