The Oakland teachers union announced Tuesday that its members have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike as negotiations with Oakland Unified School District reach seven months without an agreement.
The announcement comes a month after Oakland teachers held an unauthorized walkout in March to pressure OUSD to make higher salary offers. Eighty-eight percent of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) members who cast a ballot were in favor of authorizing a work stoppage, and 87% of OEA members voted. The union has more than 2,500 members and includes teachers, nurses, counselors, school psychologists, and social workers.
“Those who voted, voted yes to force OUSD to bargain in good faith,” said Armendariz at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Since our initial assessment earlier this month, our educators have become more supportive of our strike. Oakland educators deserve better.”
The authorization by members doesn’t mean a strike will occur, but it does pave the way for the union’s leadership to call for one. The teachers union has not specified whether it plans to do so, or when. But the union has accused the district of engaging in unfair labor practices and bargaining in bad faith. And in a recorded statement released Wednesday, OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said the strike could happen during the first week of May.
“Our team continues to bargain with the teachers union in good faith and no impasse has been declared by either side,” said Johnson-Trammell in her statement. “We believe a strike would be inappropriate and unnecessary. There may come a time when a strike is appropriate, but that time is not now.”
If a strike happens next week, Johnson-Trammell warned that some schools may not be able to operate and that parents should make alternate plans for their students.
OEA and OUSD have been meeting since October to negotiate a contract that would lay out pay scales and work conditions like class sizes, caseloads, working hours, and others. Much of the disagreement has been over salary. The school district has proposed $3.5% raises for all OEA members, plus a 4.5% increase for those teaching transitional kindergarten to 12th grade in addition to working two more hours per week. The proposal would also make changes to the district’s pay ranges that would take a first-year teacher from earning a minimum salary of $52,905 to $63,429, plus increases to base salaries at other levels. The changes would ensure teachers get raises sooner, instead of spending years at the same salary, would shorten the amount of time it takes teachers to reach the maximum salary from 32 to 19 years, and would increase the maximum salary for an experienced teacher from $98,980 to $117,699.
“The district’s offer would, for the first time in decades, move our teacher compensation to above the average salary for teachers in our region,” Johnson-Trammell said.
District leaders have been clear that increasing compensation for teachers is essential to retaining staff, and in a statement Tuesday evening, OUSD officials said they’re willing to meet with OEA at any time.
“[The district] looks forward to continuing our efforts to reach an agreement with OEA that honors our educators and best supports our students’ learning,” the statement said. “We will continue to do everything possible to avoid a work stoppage.”
OEA’s latest salary proposal includes a 10% retroactive raise for all members including non-teaching positions such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers, a $10,000 one-time payment to members who return for the 2023-2024 school year, increases of between $7,500 and $10,000 to starting salaries, and an additional $5,000 stipend for those who return for the 2024-2025 school year.
“Our proposals are providing stability for our schools by demanding OUSD pay our entire bargaining unit a living wage,” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, the second vice president of OEA. “Educators need enough money to be able to stay in Oakland.”
Last week, the school district attempted to stop the looming strike by filing an injunction with the Public Employee Relations Board, the state agency that oversees collective bargaining between public institutions and employees, arguing that the union has not fulfilled the requirements to call a strike. The public employee relations board on Wednesday rejected the district’s request.
OEA leadership has also stated that they’re eager to come to an agreement before the end of the school year on May 25.
“We really do want to avoid a strike. We are asking them to come to the table and bargain in good faith,” said Taiz-Rancifer. “We really want to make sure that we have every opportunity to be able to listen to their proposals, their counter proposals, and try to reach an agreement. This is something we can avoid, but we do have the votes to be able to call a strike if necessary.”
The union and the district have future bargaining sessions scheduled on April 27 and April 28.
“I’m really hopeful that we can get a settled contract or a tentative agreement in the next few weeks. If these offers aren’t good enough yet, I would encourage everyone that we keep negotiating to make it better,” said Mike Hutchinson, Oakland’s school board president and District 4 representative. “My whole time on the board so far, it’s been a priority of the entire district to improve teacher retention and to do that through improving compensation.”
OUSD enrolls about 34,000 students and enrollment has been declining for several years. School district budgets rely largely on student attendance, and OUSD’s future revenues could suffer from both decreasing enrollment and increasing absenteeism. This year, about 36% of students have been chronically absent, which means they’ve missed more than 10% of the school year or more than two days per month. In years prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism ranged from 15% to 30% of students.
Oakland Unified is also on the verge of paying off a loan that has kept the district in receivership since 2003 when OUSD was financially insolvent. That year, a state administrator was given oversight of OUSD’s operations. The arrangement continued until 2009, when control was restored to the elected school board. But until the state loan is repaid, a county appointed trustee still has oversight of the school district’s finances: If district leaders make a budget decision that Trustee Luz Cázares believes could compromise district finances, she can stop that decision. Cázares has not used her veto power before, but expressed concerns recently when the school board reversed a decision to close schools, which the board had initially voted to do in 2022 to save money.
As part of the closure plan, two schools closed last year, two were merged into one, and a K-8 became a K-5. Five more elementary school closures were planned for this year, and another K-8 was set to eliminate its middle-school grades, before the board voted in January to take those closures off the table.
The teachers union went on strike in 2019 for seven days and won an 11% raise. Last year, the union held a one-day unfair labor practice strike, in protest of the school closure plan.