teachers fill an auditorium holding signs and banners advocating for a fair contract
Teachers and supporters rally in the Great Room at La Escuelita Elementary School before a school board meeting on April 26, 2023. Credit: Ashley McBride

One day after the Oakland teachers union announced its members had voted to authorize a strike, a couple hundred educators and their supporters filled the Great Room at La Escuelita Elementary School for a rally ahead of Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

Carrying signs and banners, and chanting songs, teachers and families called for the school district to meet their contract proposals for higher salaries, campus safety measures, and reduced caseloads and class sizes. Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Education Association have been negotiating a new contract since October, and the union on Tuesday announced members had voted to authorize a strike due to what they see as bad-faith bargaining by the district.  

“The fact that teachers come here and they can work for a little bit, get some experience and then go somewhere else and get paid means our students don’t always have teachers that have been with the district for a long time,” said Liana Smith, an instructional coach for special education, who has been with OUSD for 10 years. “That hurts us.”

OUSD officials have stated their commitment to raising teacher pay, which they hope will lead to increased teacher retention. Eighty percent of teachers returned to OUSD to teach this past fall, following the 2021-2022 school year. About 35% of OUSD teachers are in the first five years of their careers, according to district data. In a survey from spring 2022, housing affordability and salary were the two factors that made Oakland teachers most want to leave the Bay Area. 

“Teachers have families, they have bills, they have to pay rent. They have children in school,” said Griselda Guerrero, a Greenleaf Elementary mom who attended the rally ahead of the school board meeting. “If you don’t have money for rent, how can you make it work?”

teachers and school staff walk in front of la esceulita elementary school holding signs and rallying for a fair contract
Outside of La Escuelita Elementary School and MetWest High School, members of the Oakland Education Association hold signs advocating for a fair contract. Credit: Ashley McBride

Much of the community discussion during Wednesday’s meeting revolved around changes to special education programs in the upcoming school year. Some of these changes were announced within the last month, leaving some families to make sudden decisions about where to enroll their students for the fall.  

The changes include ending special education classes at several schools, phasing out programs at others, and introducing a few new special education programs for early childhood and elementary grades. 

“Listen to these kids. Listen to these parents. Listen to the community,” said Eric Rodriguez, who added that his son is thriving in a program at Montera Middle School, which is shuttering two of its special education classes this year and next year. “Stop picking on kids who are marginalized and who are already on the fringes.”

Jennifer Blake, OUSD’s executive director of special education and health services, told parents that the district’s plans were not communicated as well as they could have been.

“I am sad that our families had to come out tonight in the way that they did. It hurts my heart,” said Blake. “I’m very happy to see in the resolution that there is a call to have advanced communication with our CAC because our community does need to know before getting a decision that will impact their children.”

The projected changes will save about $2.5 million in labor costs, Blake added. Directors Valarie Bachelor and Jennifer Brouhard introduced a resolution on Wednesday that would establish a new process for making changes to special education program offerings, calling for program relocations or closures to happen no sooner than one year after they are announced. Under their proposal, any changes would also first need to be presented to OUSD’s community advisory committee for special education, and the school board would have to vote on any special education program changes if the resolution is passed. The resolution could come back to the board for a vote in May.

Wednesday’s school board meeting also honored the district’s employees of the year who work in support positions as paraeducators, security guards, food service workers, attendance specialists, and other critical school staff. All were nominated by their colleagues. 

This years’ honorees included Mladie Thomas-Alexander, a paraeducator at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Sandra Burton, an attendance specialist at Emerson Elementary, Cecilia Franco, a food service assistant at REACH Academy, Jason Dixon, a custodian at Oakland Tech, Martha Flores, a noon supervisor at Lockwood STEAM Academy, Venus Vernadine Ewalani Mesui, a case manager at Life Academy, and Belinda Campbell, a computer operator for tech services. 

The next regular school board meeting will be May 10, 2023. 

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.