Roxana De La O Cortez, teacher at Manzanita SEED Elementary School, marches with other teachers and supporters in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Teachers in Oakland went on strike Thursday in the country's latest walkout by educators over classroom conditions and pay. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Official: Oakland waiting for teachers' counteroffer

February 21, 2019 - 1:41 pm
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Teachers in Oakland, California, went on strike Thursday, part of a national wave of discontent by educators over classroom conditions, pay and other issues. Recent walkouts have taken place in West Virginia, Los Angeles and Denver.

The city's 3,000 teachers want a 12-percent retroactive raise covering 2017 to 2020 to compensate for what they say are the among the lowest salaries for public school teachers in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area. They also want the district to hire more counselors to support students and more full-time nurses.

The union leader said the educators were forced to strike because he said administrators did not listen to their demands for two years.

"For two years we have been negotiating with the Oakland Unified School District to make our students a priority over outside consultants and central office administrators," said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown. "It's time for them to listen to the voices of the community."

Initially, the district offered a 5-percent raise covering 2017 to 2020, saying it is squeezed by rising costs and a budget crisis.

In negotiations Wednesday aimed at averting a strike, the district increased its proposal to a 7 percent raise over four years and a one-time 1.5 percent bonus. The offer went higher than the recommendation of an independent fact-finding report that suggested the sides agree to a compromise 6-percent retroactive raise.

But union officials rejected the offer.

Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki said school administrators hope to get a counter proposal from the union when negotiations resume Friday.

"We haven't heard any proposal since last May so we're hoping they have something for us when we meet tomorrow," Sasaki said.

The walkout affects 36,000 students at 86 schools.

The district said schools would remain open, staffed by non-union employees and substitute teachers. However, parents should not expect school as usual, it said.

Teachers have been working without a contract since 2017 and have said their salaries have not kept up with the cost of living.

A starting salary in the district is $46,500 a year and the average salary is $63,000, according to the union. By comparison, a starting teacher makes $51,000 a year in neighboring Berkeley and the average salary is $75,000, the union said.

Kindergarten teacher Kaki Blackburn, 30, was among dozens of educators picketing outside Manzanita Community School, an elementary school, with signs saying "On strike For a Living Wage."

Blackburn, who teaches 29 kids, said her main concerns were class size and wages.

She said her salary makes it impossible to afford an apartment on her own.

"There's no way I'd be able to live here without a roommate," she said. "This is not what I went to Brown University to get a Masters for."

Manzanita Principal Eyana Spencer said 14 of the school's 450 students turned up for school Thursday. The students were all grouped in one classroom playing games.

Nearly 600 teachers left their job at Oakland public schools last year, according to the union, which has said the district cannot retain teachers or attract experienced new teachers.

The union has also called for the district to scrap a plan to close as many as 24 schools that serve primarily African-American and Latino students. The union fears the move would likely lead to further losses of students to charter schools that drain more than $57 million a year from Oakland public schools.

Principals are not in the same union as the teachers and planned to be in schools Thursday but have come out in support of teachers' demands. About 30 of Oakland's more than 80 principals went to the state Capitol on Wednesday to call for better school funding.

"Pretty much every principal is in support of the teachers having higher pay," said Cliff Hong, an Oakland middle school principal.

Recent strikes across the nation have built on a wave of teacher activism that began last spring. Unions for West Virginia teachers, who staged a nine-day walkout last year, ended another two-day strike Wednesday. Last week, teachers in Denver ended a three-day walkout after reaching a tentative deal raising their wages.

Teachers in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, staged a six-day strike last month that ended when they settled on a 6-percent raise with promises of smaller class sizes and the addition of nurses and counselors.

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Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.

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