Oakland teachers, school district still deeply divided over salaries

Oakland teachers say they are not paid enough. Their bosses and their students want them to get a raise. Education researchers agree.

But the specifics of teachers’ demand — a 12 percent raise over three years, and its distance from what the school district says it can feasibly give — has led to a weeklong strike in the famously activist city that has halted normal school operations, caused thousands of educators to go without pay and become the latest data point in a series of attention-grabbing teacher strikes across the country.

Bargaining teams met again Thursday, and teachers were joined on the picket lines by educators from other districts in the Bay Area.

It’s now the longest stretch that Oakland teachers have protested outside the classroom since the five-week strike of 1996, and the second major labor action by educators in California this year after a six-day strike in Los Angeles.

Here are answers to key questions arising from the strike.

How realistic are the teachers’ demands? Union leaders and district officials fundamentally disagree over how much leeway the school district’s $580 million budget has for raises, which would probably be given to employees in other represented labor groups as well — such as custodians and food service workers. For that reason, each 1 percent raise will cost $3.5 million, according to the district, which is battling a structural deficit and plans to make $22 million in cuts in the coming days.

The Oakland Education Association is asking for more nurses and counselors, reduced classes and guarantees that non-charter public schools will remain open. Oakland educators say their wage demands would be just enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in the East Bay and that raises could be funded by redirecting money from consultants and contractors, for which the district allocated $67 million last year.

Administrators say the district is recovering from years of financial mismanagement while facing declining student enrollment — and thus state dollars — with the rise of charter schools, and obligations such as pensions and a $100 million emergency loan from the state made in 2003.

The district’s latest offer, presented Monday, would give teachers an 8 percent raise over three years and a one-time 2 percent bonus.

 Oakland teachers, school district still deeply divided over salaries

Even if both sides were to agree to the 12 percent raise, Christopher Learned, a state-appointed official overseeing the school district’s finances, said he would reject it, because the amount would “put the district in financial distress.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond mediated Oakland negotiations this week. He has a history of strong support from teachers unions, but that doesn’t mean he can pull money out of a hat.

“The state cannot make these strikes go away,” Thurmond said in an interview with The Chronicle. “Ultimately, they have to be resolved by local parties coming to an agreement.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal, which includes $576 million for special education and $3 billion in one-time funds to reduce pension costs at K-12 schools and community colleges, could help relieve some financial pressure on school districts, Thurmond said.

Living off an Oakland teacher’s salary: On wages alone, Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in Alameda County, with starting salaries at $46,570, the highest at $83,724 and an average salary of $63,149, according to the California Department of Education.

But when factoring in $13,000 per-teacher health benefits that some school districts do not have, they are on par with their East Bay peers — a fact that district leaders are quick to point out.

Of the 13 largest school districts in California, Oakland teachers have the lowest base salaries, when adjusted for cost of living, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The Washington think tank found that Oakland teachers need to work for 20 years to save for a 20 percent down payment on a house. For San Francisco teachers, it takes 30 years.

“You compare Oakland to other districts nationally, and they’re somewhere in the middle in terms of salary ranges, but once you control for cost of living, all of a sudden those salaries, which looked competitive, are in the basement,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “If they did get the 12 percent raise, salaries would absolutely be competitive.”

 Oakland teachers, school district still deeply divided over salaries

To afford the median mortgage in Alameda County, the average Oakland teacher would have to put two-thirds of the gross salary toward payments, according to research by Zillow, the real estate database company. The average Oakland teacher needs to spend 60 percent of the salary to afford the median apartment rent in the county.

It’s even starker across the bay. The average San Francisco teacher would have to put 90 percent of the gross salary toward median mortgage payments in the city, according to Zillow. For San Jose teachers trying to live in Santa Clara County, it’s 81 percent.

 Oakland teachers, school district still deeply divided over salaries

The lowest-paid teachers in San Francisco would need to spend 142 percent of pretax salary to afford a mortgage, or 110 percent to rent an apartment in the city.

Across public schools, the “teacher pay penalty” — the percent by which educators are paid less than comparable workers — hit a new high in 2017, hurting retention in the profession, according to a study from UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Finding the money: Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, a research center on education finance and policy, said that if Oakland district leaders were “radically transparent” about funding and spending, down to the school level, then principals and teachers could better understand trade-offs that should be made.

For instance, staffing levels and wages typically have an inverse relationship amid contract bargaining — to get more of one, concessions must be made on the other. The union demanding both is challenging, Roza said.

Yet the teacher strikes in Oakland and elsewhere do not seem to be focused on moving around limited resources within districts’ budgets, she said.

“We’re not really having an honest discussion over what’s the best way to spend money, but a statement of frustration, then districts feeling like there’s nothing they can do about it, and then for some, like Los Angeles, going further into the hole,” Roza said.

“Right now, there’s really a lack of trust between the two sides. There’s a sense of, ‘Don’t you think there’s money somewhere, and don’t I deserve a raise?” she said. “It used to be that strikes were about how to divvy up the district’s dollars. Now it’s, ‘We want the money, and we don’t care if the district has it.’”

Lessons from Los Angeles: In the case of Los Angeles, a strike won teachers a 3 percent retroactive raise for 2017-18 and another 3 percent for 2018-19, along with reduced classes, more librarians, counselors and nurses, and a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools in the district.

L.A. district leaders also agreed to spread out the impact of unearned wages from strike days. Instead of not being paid for their absence, an equal deduction in pay will be taken out of the next six months of checks.

The L.A. County Office of Education, alarmed by the raises, said the deal could lead to the school district falling below its required reserves in three years. County overseers asked the district for a revised budget plan.

Oakland and Los Angeles teachers put forth similar demands for similar situations. Both wanted more nurses and counselors to be hired, fewer charter schools and smaller classes.

Their prestrike wages weren’t far apart, either. In the 2017-18 school year, L.A. teachers had a starting salary of $43,913, the highest at $87,085 and an average salary of $74,789. The average per-teacher benefits are $14,500, according to the district.

But Oakland teachers face different challenges, too: a steeper cost of living, an attrition rate more than three times that of Los Angeles educators, and a history of insolvency and state receivership in the district.

The Oakland district has an 18.5 percent attrition rate compared with the national rate of 10 percent overall and 15 percent for urban schools.

In a survey last year, 2 out of 3 Oakland teachers said their salary made them want to leave or strongly want to leave the district.

Turnover rates are 70 percent higher for teachers in schools that have the highest concentrations of students of color, and teachers of color have a turnover rate of 19 percent compared with 15 percent for their white colleagues, according to district data.

District leaders say the poor retention has cost millions in training, hiring and professional development.

Both sides agree that wage increases will help keep teachers from leaving Oakland.

Kimberly Veklerov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kveklerov@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kveklerov

Article source: https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Oakland-teachers-school-district-deeply-divided-13654007.php

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