Over the last four years, Oakland teachers have gone on strike three times. The reasons have mostly been what one would expect: low pay, large class sizes, and allegations of unfair labor practices at the school district. But this year, a different set of issues emerged as a major sticking point in the negotiations between the district and striking educators: a list of measures not directly tied to working conditions, but addressing “common good” issues like student homelessness, transportation, and shared leadership of community schools.
As the strike went on for more than a week, some parents, community members, and school board directors increasingly expressed frustration with the proposals, disputing whether they belonged in negotiations. Board President Mike Hutchinson argued that actions on these issues should be decided by the school board in a public forum and not in a contract between OUSD and one of its unions.
“Teachers are one of the many important stakeholders that we represent,” Hutchinson said to parents during a forum on May 9. “For some of these things, there is a philosophical question, and I believe that the place where larger policies to serve the common good should be decided is with our democratically elected school board.”
Director Sam Davis, who represents District 1, also felt that while the common good issues are worthy of discussion and collaboration, the strict legal confines of a contract negotiation isn’t the place for those talks.
“What we need in Oakland is to build up more space where people can really communicate honestly and trustingly and there can be space to brainstorm,” Davis previously told The Oaklandside. “We should start by using the spaces we already have before we go to the more intense legalistic strategies.”
At one point, OUSD released a statement arguing that including the common good measures in a collective bargaining agreement would force the district to make promises it can’t keep, and estimated the total cost of OEA’s proposals to be more than one billion dollars.
“While the district agrees that these issues should be addressed, and we are already working on many of them, the issues cannot be tackled through school district budgets alone,” Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said in a message to the community on May 10. “They demand multi-agency and government support. As laudable as common good causes may be, they should not hold children’s learning hostage or deprive students of the service that schools provide, including nutrition, safety, and social-emotional connections.”
Meanwhile, some parents who said they were otherwise supportive of the union’s advocacy for higher pay were also critical of OEA’s choice to push for the common good proposals.
The issue caused division on the school board, with directors Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams, and Valarie Bachelor publicly supporting the proposals, and urging their colleagues to do the same.
After bargaining for 11 days, on May 15, the two sides reached a tentative agreement and OEA announced an end to the strike. In addition to higher salaries for teachers and other staff, OUSD and OEA agreed on four of the union’s common good proposals involving student housing and transportation, shared oversight of community schools, Black community schools, and school closures.
Common good proposals are becoming more common in teachers union negotiations
By bringing common good demands to the bargaining table—in addition to more traditional demands like wages, hours, and class sizes—Oakland’s teachers union followed in the footsteps of those in Los Angeles, St. Paul, Chicago, and elsewhere, that have recently done the same.
While some community members and district officials are critical of the demands, teachers and their supporters argue that by enshrining these measures in contracts, the district is acknowledging that it can play a role in addressing systemic issues like poverty.
“If we are in a school district that has surplus buildings, is it not our responsibility to look at the nearly 1,600 unhoused students and think, ‘What are the ways in which we can contribute to ensuring that they have roofs over their heads?’” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, vice president of OEA. “We ought to be looking into ways in which we address some of the things that are impacting students, which then ultimately impact our ability to provide quality instruction to those same kids.”
Between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school year, the number of unhoused students in OUSD increased by 400 students. The district’s new common good memorandum of understanding related to housing and transportation directs OEA and OUSD to collaborate on finding supports for homeless youth, and advocate to local government for Section 8 vouchers that subsidize housing costs. It also directs OEA and OUSD to work on implementing board policy 7351, which was introduced in 2020 by former Board Director Jumoke Hinton, and establishes a goal for OUSD to build and maintain housing for homeless students and families, and housing for district employees.
The agreement also says the union and the district will work together to address street safety issues near schools and increase the number of free bus passes that AC Transit provides for students.
OUSD is expected to receive more than $60 million in state funding to support its community schools, which provide non-academic student resources such as food pantries, clothing, health clinics, and legal resources for things like immigration. The agreement for the community schools establishes a steering committee to advise the district on how it can best support students, and several members of the steering committee will be chosen by OEA, OUSD’s student directors, and the parent student advisory committee.
Another key reason for putting the common good measures in a contract is to make them enforceable, Taiz-Rancifer said. She pointed to a resolution that the board passed following the 2019 strike, mandating that the district allow at least nine months of community engagement between announcing a school closure and closing a school.
Last year, the board voted in February to close schools three months later, in May. The district also failed to follow a rule approved in 2021, the Reparations for Black Students resolution, which stated that the district would prepare an equity analysis of any school closures and follow the community engagement timeline from the previous resolution..
“When they went to close the schools [last year] they just overrode the board policy,” Taiz-Rancifer said. Now that the common good proposals are memorialized in the contract, she said, the union can file a grievance or go to arbitration if the district falters. “We’re certainly hoping that’s not going to be necessary at all and OUSD is committed to these policies, but what is comforting to the community is that there is some accountability.”
The memorandum regarding school closures directs OUSD to follow the California Education Code, which was recently amended to mandate that school districts hold community engagements and analyze the impacts before deciding what schools to close.
Pecolia Manigo, the previous chair of the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force established by the reparations resolution, said she is hopeful the agreement about Black community schools will grant the newly created task force with more power than she had. The previous task force, which was charged with analyzing district data about Black students to identify achievement gaps and solutions, met regularly throughout the 2021-2022 school year. But according to a KQED report, when the school closure plan was announced, the task force’s work was derailed and momentum declined.
“From my experience as the chair of the task force, the resolution alone did not ensure that Black parents and students had a voice in the efforts of the district to ensure the gap around opportunities for Black students and families were being addressed,” Manigo told The Oaklandside.
In Los Angeles, the teachers union also recently won some “common good” demands, including those related to Black student achievement and student homelessness. Although the United Teachers of Los Angeles did not go on strike for these issues during contract negotiations (they held a solidarity strike with the Service Employees International Union), union president Cecily Myart-Cruz said negotiations took 11 months and 33 bargaining sessions.
“When you have a student that comes to school who is hungry or who could be unhoused, that becomes our working conditions,” she told The Oaklandside. “And now we have to work to make sure that these needs are addressed.”
When asked why these kinds of demands are becoming more common across the country, both union leaders pointed to the pandemic illuminating more of the hardships that students face in receiving an education.
“There had been major systemic issues that happened before the pandemic, but the pandemic not only shed a light on those things but fundamentally shifted the way that schooling happens,” Taiz-Rancifer said. “And we have to shift with it.”