chairs stacked on top of desks in a classroom
An empty class room with chairs on top of desks at Manzanita Community School. Credit: Amir Aziz

As contract negotiations near the six-month mark with no resolution in sight, tensions between the teachers union and Oakland Unified School District appear to be mounting. 

Earlier this month, the OUSD board approved a package of budget reductions for the 2023-2024 school year that board directors say are needed to make room for teacher pay raises. But Oakland Education Association representatives critical of the plan say increases in state funding should be enough to fairly compensate teachers, and that OUSD has stopped coming to the negotiating table.

OUSD and OEA, which represents nearly 3,000 teachers, nurses, counselors, and substitutes, have been bargaining since October over a new three-year contract that will lay out working conditions like pay, hours, prep time, and class size. Salaries are a major sticking point: OEA has proposed a 23% salary increase, and the elimination of “pay plateaus,” where teachers receive the same fixed pay for several years until they reach the next salary increase. For example, with the current pay schedule, once a teacher reaches their 12th year, they don’t receive a salary increase until their 21st year. This can lead to mid-career teachers leaving OUSD for other districts when they hit that plateau. 

In a proposal on March 16, OUSD offered a 3.5% to 4.5% salary increase, plus revisions to the salary schedule that would increase the base pay for first-year teachers, remove pay plateaus, and reduce the number of years it takes for teachers to reach their maximum pay from 32 years to 19 years. 

An updated offer from OUSD made public on Wednesday makes changes to the salary schedule that district leaders say would effectively increase salaries by 8% to 11% when combined with the previous offer. OUSD added that OEA’s proposals total $250 million in additional ongoing costs. 

“We know that there is more work to do at the table but this change alone will have lasting impacts on the recruitment and retention of teachers in OUSD,” the statement said. “Because OUSD has finite resources for ongoing costs and must operate within a balanced budget, we are unable to do everything proposed by OEA. At the table, OUSD has expressed its desire to prioritize increasing compensation to improve educator retention and improving student outcomes.” 

The last contract between OEA and OUSD expired in October 2022. In 2019, when Oakland teachers went on a six-day strike, they had been working with an expired contract for nearly two years. 

“If we don’t do anything about compensating teachers, we’re not going to be able to keep teachers in Oakland,” said Ismael Armendariz, the interim president of OEA. “We need to be able to settle a contract that prioritizes our students and our educators.” Aremendariz told The Oaklandside he hopes the union can achieve a new contract “before the end of the year.”

Some rank-and-file teachers have planned a walkout for Friday, an action that is unauthorized by the teachers union. One Oakland high school teacher who asked not to be identified told The Oaklandside that Friday’s “sickout,” which will include picketing at school sites and a rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza, is meant to call attention to what they describe as an impasse over contract negotiations, and put financial pressure on the district to act. Since state funding for schools is tied to attendance, the district stands to lose money if fewer students go to school because of the action.

Oakland isn’t the only school district where contract negotiations are intensifying. In Los Angeles Unified School District, members of the local Service Employees International Union, who represent cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and other school staff, began a three-day strike this week. The United Teachers of Los Angeles have joined the picket lines in solidarity. UTLA also went on strike in January 2019, one month before OUSD teachers.  

OUSD declined to comment on Friday’s protest.

School board steadfast on reducing costs elsewhere

The district’s 2023-2024 budget plan, which was approved unanimously by the school board at a special meeting on March 9, includes layoffs, eliminating vacancies, and shifting other positions to one-time funding sources. The vote came nearly 10 days after the board had initially voted against the proposal, after some board and community members scrutinized the plan for leaving open the possibility of merging 10 schools, laying off school site staff, and for being introduced too hastily. 

While the substance of the budget adjustments largely remained the same, the approved plan added stipulations requiring the superintendent to return to the board if funding becomes available that can help restore eliminated positions, and bring to the board a list of mid-level central office positions that could be supported with one-time funding—a concession to critics of the budget plan who have advocated for eliminating positions at the central office before school sites. 

The school board and district staff will continue developing the budget until the board votes on a final version in June. Before then, Board President Mike Hutchinson hopes to hold community engagement sessions so that the public can weigh in on budget priorities. 

“We have to make these adjustments in order to have the flexibility to adopt a budget for next year to account for these new expenses,” Hutchinson told The Oaklandside. “I’m confident that as negotiations continue between OEA and OUSD, we can come to a good resolution for a strong contract for our teachers.”

Parent leaders want more transparency around negotiations

Lakisha Young, a parent and executive director of The Oakland REACH, a parent-run education advocacy group, said while she wants to see teachers and staff be paid more, a wildcat strike will just be another disruption for students who have already experienced significant instability over the last several years, including a six-day teachers strike in 2019, the COVID school closures in 2020 and 2021, and a one-day strike last year over school closures.

“They need to be able to negotiate in a reasonable way and move this forward on behalf of folks getting a good wage and not have it hurt our kids,” Young said. “[A wildcat strike] doesn’t make anything better for anybody but it inconveniences a lot of people, like the folks who need their kids in school the most.”

The Oakland REACH has partnered with OUSD over the last year to train community members as literacy tutors to support students and help mitigate learning loss that occurred during the pandemic and distance learning—support that students need to be receiving without disruption, Young said.

Young and Megan Bacigalupi, the executive director of CA Parent Power, collaborated last year to propose a resolution to the school board that they hoped would bring more transparency to the negotiation process and offer families the opportunity to weigh in on the collective bargaining agreements between OUSD and its labor partners. They ultimately pulled the resolution after weighing the burden it would place on parents to educate themselves on the agreements enough to effectively weigh in, Young said. 

Without that transparency, parents feel left in the dark, Bacigalupi added. Beyond that, she said teacher sickouts don’t send the right message to students about showing up for school.

“Part of the reason that we’re in a lot of the mess we’re in with the budget is that we have dual crises happening: An enrollment crisis and an attendance crisis. We need to be reinforcing to students the importance of school and that you need to be there. Walking off for a day does not do that for students and families.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.