Tony Smith’s recent anti-teacher editorial in support of the plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California supreme court case, published by the OaklandTribune (a historically and current right-wing pro-business rag) comes as no surprise to Classroom Struggle. His departure–from the lucrative post as superintendent of Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)–was precipitated by teacher, student, and parent-led protests of school closings/union busting/closure of Adult Education, and two Oakland Schools police scandals. As Smith oversaw a record influx of charter schools, and a number of public school closures, the flood of protest resistance rose higher than the flood waters at the 2ND Avenue OUSD Administration offices, which forced a relocation to the former Cole Middle School — a school later replaced by an Oakland Schools police substation and eventually a charter school move-in. The amount of money Tony Smith’s leadership wasted on administration and consultants coupled with an annual failure to spend the mandated 55% of budget funds on classrooms, should shed light what Tony Smith actually did as Superintendent of Oakland Schools. This oft-spoken advocate of critical race theory and strident supporter of young African American men, is gone and forgotten, though the legacy of his devastating policies present the public with important work to organize against and overturn these corporate/private attacks on public education.
In contrast to the teacher, student, and parent outrage at Tony Smith’s policies, his plans were met with a minimum level of resistance by the Oakland teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA). The only minor pushback consisted of a widely respected one-day strike in response to Smith and the School Board’s contract imposition. Otherwise, Smith did everything he could to delegitimize the OEA. With the majority of the school board in his back pocket and union leadership too willing to collaborate, Smith’s promise of “full-service community schools” proved in reality to be no-service community schools.
But the OEA was not alone in this fight, resistance heightened up to and throughout the Occupy Movement where a proposal at the Occupy Oakland general assembly, resulted in the creation of a committee (the Occupy Oakland Education Committee) specifically aimed at challenging Smith’s policies and his union-busting corporate, pro-charter camp. With the support of the Occupy Oakland Movement,this committee, now called Classroom Struggle, participated in organizing thousands of Oakland’s finest students, teachers and parents in marches for the defense of public education. This organizing reached a high point in a concerted fight against Smith’s closure of five public elementary schools after the 2011/2012 school year.
Collaborating with Occupy Oakland, Classroom Struggle served as the organizing committee for an 18 day sit-in and People’s Summer School at Lakeview Elementary — an effort led by teachers, elementary and middle school children, and parents devastated by the closures of their neighborhood schools. The sit-in culminated in a march and rally on the front lawn of Tony Smith’s house after a 4am police raid (commanded by infamous Officer Bhatt, more on him later) on what was a peaceful sit-in and People’s School. Without a doubt, the presence of a huge and diverse crowd of Oakland citizens protesting Smith’s policies and police action on a peaceful sit-in, landed an impactful left hook to the chin of a bureaucrat who did everything possible to maintain a progressive facade–a facade shaken by two Oakland schools police scandals.
The police scandals began with the resignation of racist Oakland Schools Police Chief Pete Sarna, and followed with the murder of an unarmed, black young man by two Oakland schools police officers. Tony Smith was complicit in these two scandals. First, he presided over the hiring of Sarna, who prior to working as OUSD Police Chief, resigned in disgrace from the position of Deputy Director of Law Enforcement for Jerry Brown’s state Justice Department–after Sarna crashed the state’s Chevy Tahoe into a tow truck and was cited for misdemeanor drunk driving. Apparently Smith and the Oakland School Board felt this type of behavior was good enough for Oakland Schools Police Chief.
Equally disgusting was Smith and the OUSD School Board’s pick to replace the racist Sarna after Smith’s second police scandal in which a young unarmed, black man, Raheim Brown, was shot and killed by OUSD police officers. Officer Barhin Bhatt was chosen as Interim Police Chief after having just shot and killed Raheim Brown outside a Skyline High School Dance. According to Barhin Bhatt’s partner, Officer John Bellusa, Bhatt shot two rounds into the body of Raheim Brown, and then fired another five rounds to finish off the young man who had driven up the hill to hangout with his date. In a sworn affidavit, Bellusa testified that he ordered the first round of shots because Brown allegedly had a screw driver, but no longer considered Raheim a threat after the first bullets, yet Bhatt still made sure this young man wouldn’t live to see his 20th birthday. Bellusa also swore he witnessed Officer Bhatt consume alcoholic drinks while on duty; another nice choice for Chief of the Police Department that “serves and protects” the students of the Oakland Unified School District. To top it all off, Bellusa also implicated Tony Smith in the coverup of Brown’s murder. In making the decision to promote a trigger happy Bhatt and assisting in the coverup of murder, Smith’s concern for young black men proved to be the standard lipservice of a top down bureaucrat. To read a full report of this gross police misconduct click here.
This decision to name Officer Bhatt as Interim Chief of Police was met with stiff resistance and a large campaign for justice led by Raheim Brown’s family. This young man was gunned down by an incompetent police force who were being led by a racist drunk. With this type of misleadership, no sane person would ever mistake Tony Smith for someone who truly cares about the lives of OUSD students and families, especially young black men and their families. Smith’s shameless pandering to a progressive urban populace is nearly as bad as he and the School Board pretending to provide full service community schools, while defunding libraries, counseling, nursing, the arts and the remnants of Adult Education/GED programs, to name but a few of the services gutted by the Smith regime.
Yet, if the above doesn’t dispel Tony’s myths about teachers, then maybe the numbers will. The Smith-led Oakland Unified School District was fined every year for having too many administrators. With an excess of school administrators, high turn-over of OUSD teachers, and the imposition of the Accelerated Teachers on Special Assignment (TSA) policy, one has to wonder about the legitimacy of Smith’s claim that administrators don’t have the capacity to fire “bad teachers”. The district was fined just under one million last year alone for its numerous administrators; lets also remember that OUSD and its School Board chose not to dispense the mandated 55% of the overall budget to classroom expenditures every year since Smith took office. In 2011, classroom teachers were shorted $10.8 million dollars below the required minimum 55%, while the district continued to waste further millions on consultants and police annually–money that could pay for more teachers, allowing for reduction in class sizes and caseloads, and student access to crucial services. Surely re-prioritizing spending on teachers and student access to services would get much closer to “full-service community schools” than the Tony Smith model of racist killer cops; excessive administration payouts; school closures; rampant union busting; the decimation of Adult Education; or a record # of charter schools spreading anti-union agendas, something Tony Smith also proved to be quite committed to with mutual matching and the Accelerated Teachers on Special Assignment (TSA) positions forced upon teachers at Fremont, Castlemont and McClymonds high schools.
T. Smith’s model is not a recipe for “full-service community schools”. No, his is a recipe for privatization with teachers as scapegoats and poor childrens’ futures, the collateral costs. For more context on the annual shortchanging of Oakland’s teachers and families and its connection to the criminalization of youth as more and more money is spent on police and security, please check out this report. Just because Tony Smith is gone and forgotten, doesn’t mean his policies are not still front and center in the Struggle for Public Education. There can be no rest until Public Education is transformed into something entirely different from the Broad/Gates/Smith “Race to the Top” plan. Unified action is necessary.
Good riddance Tony, your thinly veiled privatization schemes will never fool the teachers, students, and families of Oakland. Your backhanded attempt to degrade the profession of teachers and slander the real commitment Oakland teachers have to Oakland children holds no ground when faced with the realities of your racist, police scandal ridden, and privatization legacy.
Classroom Strugglehas launched a campaign with parents, students and teachers to ensure that class-size reductions proposed by the OEA are won in negotiations–a struggle that may necessitate a teacher, parent, and student strike. We call on Oakland residents who are committed to quality public education for all children, to work side by side with us to create those “full-service community schools” that Tony Smith loved to pay lipservice but never, in fact, realized.
We are Oakland parents, students, teachers and school workers who are organizing for the defense and transformation of our public schools. We are fighting for the public schools that students and communities deserve. These are public schools that are fully-funded, safe, democratically controlled, and committed to supporting every student to develop their full potential as creative, intelligent and caring human beings.
We need schools that are fully-funded in order to support the full development and potential of each student, teacher, and our communities. Instead of budget cuts, bare bones funding and concentration of resources at the top, we need to fight for new sources of school funding and democratic control of resources.
We believe curriculum should be deeply meaningful to students’ lives through a holistic approach to education that supports the self-actualization of young people, and gives us the skills we need to both to survive within capitalism and to overthrow it. We vigorously oppose “reforms” that track students, standardize our education and turn us into data points.
We understand that in order for students to learn they need to feel safe. We foster safe schools through the development of the social and emotional supports students need to forge a path outside of the violence that surrounds us, as well as through struggle against the violence waged by the state and owning class against working class, oppressed groups and political dissidents and struggle to shift the violence internalized in our communities.
We need democratically controlled schools where decisions are made by the people who use and run them: teachers, parents, school workers, students.
We believe the following changes could move us toward this vision:
Decision-Making – Parent, teacher, student and school worker representatives have real decision-making power at school site level; School decision making informed by bi-annual community wide assemblies to discuss all changes and budgeting.
Class-size and caseloads – Sharply reduce class size and special education caseloads across K-12.
Curriculum – Shift away from standardized testing towards meaningful assessments and critical thinking based curriculum; Integrate ethnic studies and community based learning (i.e. participatory research and internships) throughout the curriculum; Fully fund athletic/music/art programs.
Full Service Community Schools – Actualize the district’s slogan of “full service community schools” by ensuring that the social, emotional and health of each student is supported by school-based health services, schools counselors and speech therapists with manageable caseloads, and healthy food.
Transportation – Provide free AC Transit and BART cards for students and parents so that no one misses school or goes without other basic needs because of the strain of paying for public transportation to school
Safety – Replace school police with restorative justice facilitators and conflict mediators (train SSOs to play these roles); Moratorium on suspensions and expulsions except when there are serious threats to safety.
Early Childhood and Adult Education – Broaden the reach of our schools to the full community – reopen early childhood and adult education programs in every neighborhood.
Staff Retention – Invest in school workers and retain them through 1) raising wages/benefits of classified staff (office, support, custodial and security workers); 2) unionizing afterschool teachers and other un-unionized school workers; and 3) a fair contract for Oakland teachers that increases planning time and decreases caseload.
Teacher Training – Institute fully-funded projects of team teaching where new teachers can team-teach with veteran teachers; Fight burnout and incompetency by keeping the veteran teachers active and on their toes while the newer teachers gain the wisdom and experience their more senior co-workers embody.
School Closures and Charters – Moratorium on school closures and shift in policy towards supporting students through increasing stability of the school and surrounding community not further destabilizing them – Moratorium on new charter schools as charter schools selectively recruit OUSD students and increase the segregation of our school system. Convert current charter schools back to public schools. Reform top-down curriculum controls that incentive some public schools to go charter.
We need to fight for the money to implement these changes:
Shift priorities as a society – raise taxes on the wealthy, demand banks pay back the bailout money, stop building prisons, cut military spending
Reform Proposition 13 so that California’s per pupil spending is no longer among the lowest in the U.S.
Renegotiate the state debt – Oakland students should not be held accountable for money wasted by state trustee
Demand influx of Local Control Funding Formula funds go to the students who need it most (low-income, English language learners, special education and foster youth)
Tax the Port of Oakland – Use this money to fund Oakland schools
Shift priorities for how we use funding the district already has – Lower admin salaries, cut consultants and move central office student support positions to school sites.
We need to organize collectively to get there.
We need to organize ourselves as parents, teachers, school workers and students. We need to develop a democratic district-wide student union, parent union, teacher and school worker unions that are using to use their power through strikes and other militant actions to demand what our schools need.
We need to come together through the development of school site committees of parents, teachers, students and school workers, as well as a city-wide organization through which we can learn, teach and support each other’s struggles.
We need to ensure that the bases of power we build in schools and the community-at-large are independent from politicians, corporations and the administrators that work under their control.
We need to learn how to build an alliance of all oppressed sectors, races, genders, sexualities, abilities, religions that can unite through our different strengths without ignoring our deep divisions.
We need to envision what it would look like for us to organize across all workplaces, communities, and sectors that are under attack by the same forces in capitalism and to grow a common movement that reaches across Oakland and out towards the Bay Area, California, the U.S., and the world.
What is the future of collective bargaining? According to the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, “our contract…[is] the most important legal document – and social justice document – for ensuring a quality education for our students.” To push back against “management prerogatives”, SPFT has been explicit in placing teachers’ compensation as the last issue they address. Instead, they are working closely with parents and community members to fight in 7 key areas outside of “conventional” bargaining: 1) Educating the whole child, 2) Family Engagement, 3) Smaller classes, 4) Teaching, not testing, 5) Culturally relevant education, 6) High-quality professional development, and 7) Access to preschool. In so doing, SPFT is moving collective bargaining forward as a space both to fight for teachers’ working conditions and advance the interests of students, parents, and the community. Our struggles are tied.
What can we learn from Saint Paul? For more information, read here! https://portside.org/2014-03-24/present-past-and-future-collective-bargaining
New Report Highlights Increased Use of School Spending on Police: 20,000 CA Students Arrested in 2009-201024 Mar
This new report by the Black Organizing Project / Labor Community Strategy Center is a must-read, as it presents data on the role of police officers in schools and shows how this statewide problem can be addressed by the Local Control Funding Formula. In one school year, over 30,000 California students were referred to police, with at least 20,000 students being arrested, and over 90% of them being youth of color. The report shows how this increase in the criminalization of youth is directly tied to school spending. School budgets across the state have been increasingly devoted to school police and security at the expense of vital support and educational services. For example, Oakland Unified School District spent over $6.5 million on its school police department in 2012-2013, but less than $1 million for counselors. in Los Angeles Unified School District, the police/security budget was substantially more than the combined budgets for their arts program, psychologists, the Office of Civil Rights, instructional aides, psychiatric social workers, parent involvement, and career technical education.
The report also offers a series of recommendations for how the Local Control Funding Formula could be used to shift funding away from police and towards proven alternatives for increasing academic achievement and school safety (pp. 12-13). Such measures include smaller class sizes, well-rounded curricula, the expansion of ethnic and cultural studies, improved teacher support, more afterschool programs, and enhanced student/staff relationship building.
For the full report, read here: http://www.blackorganizingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/LCFF-POLICY-BRIEF-FINAL-VERSION-3-20-2014.pdf
In San Francisco, many classified staff are in the same union as teachers. This article makes the argument that the union, which is numerically dominated by teachers, should stand strong in demanding a living wage for its lowest paid members – classified staff like classroom aides. In Oakland, where credential and classified staff are divided, we must still ask this question: What can we do as teachers, the highest paid non-managerial workers, to promote better conditions and wages for all school workers, many of whom do not make a living wage? As we fight for a significant raise and better conditions for teachers in Oakland during our current contract campaign, how can we also be advancing the demands of our co-workers who are in other unions and make much less than we do?
There are a lot of good lessons for Oakland in this article about San Francisco teachers’ contract campaign. Unlike recent years in California in which cuts were the norm, increased taxes on the rich and a new school funding formula have given teachers the opportunity to fight for more in our contract campaigns. In particular, Portland and St.Paul were able to wage successful campaigns by building strong alliances among teachers, parents, students and community members. In this article, San Francisco public school teacher Matt Bello describes the kinds of demands that can help strengthen educators’ campaign for a fair union contract.
Through joint parent, student, and teacher organizing, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers just settled a landmark contract, limiting class sizes and standardized testing, and emphasizing culturally relevant education and access to pre-school, while creating a path for teacher aides to become credentialed. For more information, check out this article: http://advocate.stpaulunions.org/2014/01/30/parents-students-support-teachers-walk-in-demonstrations-across-st-paul/
Part of the reason why the union in St. Paul was so successful is because of their policy of open bargaining. Over the last four years, St. Paul has pushed for rank-and-file teachers, parents, and community members to be present for and participate during bargaining, putting management on their best behavior: http://www.labornotes.org/2013/10/bringing-community-bargaining-table
Here is a summary of some of their key wins, as written by a teacher-activist in St. Paul:
- The district agreed to calculate elementary class size limits within each school at each grade level. This is an improvement over previous limits in which averages were calculated for each district attendance zone. Lower limits were set for high poverty schools. Secondary limits will be calculated for each teacher rather than school-wide. Starting in the 2015-16 school year, all secondary classes (except bands, orchestras and choirs, which benefit from larger numbers of students) will be required to comply with the negotiated limits. This is an improvement from existing language which applied in secondary schools only to English, math, science and social studies classes.
Education for the Whole Child
- The district committed to hiring at least 42.0 new FTEs including more licensed media specialists, elementary counselors, school social workers and nurses. These are staff in addition to any hiring the district will need to do in order to be in compliance with the negotiated class size limits. The district also committed to ensuring access to art, music and physical education for all students.
Access to Preschool
- The district committed to spending at least $6 million per school year to maintain and expand St. Paul Public Schools’ high-quality Pre-K program for 4 year-olds. These dollars will help reduce waiting lists for the program. This commitment ensures that the district will assign referendum funds to the Pre-K program now that the state is picking up the cost of all-day kindergarten.
Teaching, Not Testing
- The district committed to a 25% reduction in lost learning time due to testing and test preparation activities by the start of the 2015-16 school year. In addition, the district committed to review existing assessments for cultural relevance. SPFT and the district agreed to work together to lobby state and federal authorities to reduce mandates for unnecessary testing.
- The parties agreed to an expansion of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, to pilot Academic Parent-Teacher teams (an improved way to do parent-teacher conferences), and to allow for more flexibility in the design of parent-teacher conferences at individual schools. In addition, parents will serve on school committees that make decisions about class size exceptions at their school and will have seats on school committees designated to address school safety concerns.
Culturally Relevant Education
- In addition to our agreement to review existing assessments for cultural relevance, the parties made a significant agreement related to Educational Assistants that will increase the number of teachers of color. Educational Assistants—educators who already know St. Paul and have a strong track record of meeting our students’ needs—will have a career pathway created that will allow them to go back to school and get the coursework completed for a teaching license. This agreement will provide paid time off for EAs doing student teaching in the St. Paul Public Schools and stipends to help pay for education leading to teacher licensure. Educational Assistants will also be encouraged to participate on building equity teams.
High Quality Professional Development for Teachers
- The parties agreed to increase support for new teachers coming into the district through the Peer Assistance and Review program. In addition, the parties agreed to increase the recognition stipend for teachers who are successful in receiving their National Board Certification (NBCT) and to provide time and financial assistance for those going through the certification process. The agreement preserves parity for school nurses, school psychologists, certified nurse practitioners, speech clinicians (CCC) and school social workers (LICSW) in addition to covering all of the different license areas currently part of the NBCT program. Seeking a National Board Certification is one of the most rigorous professional development paths a teacher can take during her/his career.
- The parties reached agreements on a variety of other issues: Improvements to Payroll, an additional month of paid health insurance for parents on the unpaid portion of their parental/maternity leave, paid time off for religious observance, teacher-initiated school redesign, improved procedures for addressing school safety and discipline concerns, reduced usage of teachers on carts, language on staffing at Bridge View School and in the Birth to Three program, an employee sick leave bank, an ELL Professional Issues Committee, and increased protection from stranding.
Wages and Benefits
- Under the agreement, teachers will receive their normal steps and lanes and maintain the district’s current level of contributions toward health insurance. In addition, teachers will receive an average schedule improvement of 2.5% retroactive to July 1, 2013 and a further 2% effective on July 1, 2014. Experienced teachers (steps 15-19 and step 20) will receive an additional 1% increase on top of their schedule improvement in each of the two years of the contract.
Check out this video of students speaking out in solidarity with the teachers’ union in Portland. What would it take to build this type of solidarity between teachers and students in Oakland?
Sarah Levy reports on a tentative agreement for Portland teachers that wins on most of the union’s main demands–thanks to teachers’ thorough preparations for a strike.
Outside the theater where Portland teachers voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike (Bette Lee)
WITH LESS than 48 hours to go before what would have been the first strike in the history of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), the union’s bargaining team reached a tentative agreement and suspended the walkout that was set to begin on February 20. The tentative agreement will now be put to a ratification vote by the rank and file.
The deal came after a marathon 23-hour-long bargaining session, but the critical factor in putting pressure on the school district–after 10 months of negotiations without much movement from school officials–was the union’s thorough preparation for a strike, which culminated in a near-unanimous vote on February 5 to authorize the walkout.
In a February 24 report about the agreement to the union’s contract organizing committee, PAT officials said that they had forced the school board to concede on a number of fronts, including probably the most prominent demand of all–hiring additional teachers to allow for a meaningful reduction in class sizes.
The district has promised to add a “minimum” of 150 teachers–a significant victory given the district’s prior refusal to even address the issue. Throughout bargaining, and until the last few days before the strike, officials had stuck with their offer of only 88 additional full-time employees (FTEs), claiming that the union’s demand of 175 was “unreasonable.”
Under the tentative deal, with the addition of 150 FTEs, the number of teachers in the district will grow by around 5 percent. Fifty FTEs will go to high schools, 70 to pre-K through 8th grade, and 30 to special education.
As a result, average class sizes will be reduced, giving students more attention from teachers, who, in turn, will see their workload reduced. The district was also forced to drop its demand to remove an overall cap on class sizes from the contract.
In another win for the union, elementary school teachers will see their planning time increase from 185 minutes to 260 minutes per week. The agreement also requires the school board, over the next two years, to re-establish student load levels back to where they stood in 2010-11, should the district choose to maintain the current class schedule. The district gets the option to add two school days, but must pay teachers at the per diem rate.
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SCHOOL OFFICIALS also agreed to pay raises of 2.3 percent in each of the next three years, retroactive to July 2013. This is a modest amount, but better than the pay freezes and pay cuts seen in many public-sector labor agreements. The proposed deal also mandates that the school district continue to pay 93 percent of health care costs.
The PAT also pushed back the district’s effort to delete contract language covering teacher evaluations and the use of student test scores in evaluations. The proposed contract contains language that bars “the use of student performance on standardized tests as a basis for involuntary transfers, layoffs, placement on the salary schedule, and/or disciplinary language,” union officials said.
In winning this provision, the PAT scored an advance on an issue where many local teachers unions have retreated. The union also withstood district attempts to restrict teachers’ right to file grievances over procedures.
The proposed contract also requires the district to consult with professional educators when selecting district-wide textbooks, and adds new academic freedom language allowing professional educators to determine “the support materials and methods used for day-to-day instruction, including differentiating instruction based on student needs.”
The union won a contract language preamble that acknowledges teachers’ role as advocates for children and public education. It reads, in part:
The parties believe that a well-rounded public education should prepare every student for college, career and full participation as an active and informed community member, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or zip code. The parties also recognize that a well-rounded public education includes, but is not limited to, giving students a strong start, and providing students with an enriched, diverse and comprehensive whole-child curriculum.
The PAT did, however, make a concession on two fronts.
The union allowed the district to phase out incentives for a popular early retirement program. Under the proposed contract, teachers must have 15 years of service by June 30, 2016, to be eligible for the current retiree insurance benefits and stipend. After that date, according to PAT negotiators, “any qualifying retiree below the age of 60 no longer has the option of paying the first years of insurance premiums and having the district pay the final five years up to age 65.”
The union also agreed to limit the internal transfer process to one round of internal hiring, compared with two rounds of internal hiring in the past. This means that teachers with less experience can potentially bypass teachers with more experience, and probationary teachers could potentially bypass non-probationary teachers for jobs. But external applicants still cannot jump over teachers currently working in Portland Public Schools (PPS).
These are setbacks, but they are relatively minor compared to other teachers contracts negotiated recently, where unions have abandoned long-held opposition to merit pay and attacks on tenure. By preparing to strike, the PAT won a contract that holds the line on the issues teachers say they care most about.
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BUT EVEN with teachers relieved by the prospect of avoiding a walkout, many see this contract as only a first step in a much longer fight for the schools Portland students deserve.
As Lincoln High School teacher and PAT bargaining team member Steve Lancaster wrote in a message to teachers after signing the TA:
I believe we have achieved a contract that will improve teaching and learning conditions and moves closer to treating teachers as professional educators…
[But] we must consider the hard-won victory of this contract as a single battle in a larger war to restore our classrooms to conditions that make it possible for teachers to do their jobs…Enjoy this moment but remember that the fight is NOT over; there remains so much left to do to achieve the schools that we can truly say provide a world-class teaching and learning experience.
The gains made in this contract must be seen in the context of the last two decades, during which Portland teachers have made a series of concessions, supposedly to stave off even worse measures, like the firing of teachers.
Since 2003, when teachers worked for 10 days without pay in order provide students with a full school year and avoid a strike, they continued to give up cost-of-living increases and delayed paid step increases. They endured cuts to their pensions and increases in the amount they contribute to health insurance.
Over time, PAT members went from being some of the highest-paid teachers in the metropolitan area to some of the lowest–all while suffering an increase in workload.
To top it off, when the current round of bargaining began last April, teachers had just agreed to delay their step increases by six months to save $2.5 million. This, along with the district putting in an additional $2.5 million into the budget and the city’s injection of $5 million, covered a $10 million shortfall.
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GOING INTO contract negotiations, teachers framed their demands around the idea that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. The PAT’s initial contract proposal at the start of negotiations began with a preamble titled “The Schools Portland Students Deserve”–modeled on a similar document put out by the Chicago Teachers Union in the run-up to its September 2012 showdown with the city.
The union used this framework to show how what they were demanding in their union contract–such as class size and workload (the total number of students one teacher sees) relief; wraparound services like counseling and other professional student support; and full funding for programs such as art, music and physical education–wasn’t just for the good of teachers, but for students and the community as a whole.
The union has also argued that smaller class sizes would disproportionately benefit low-income, minority and other students who are the most in need–contrary to the line of the Oregonian newspaper that greedy teachers would only hurt the neediest students with their contract demands.
Teachers also drew attention to the district’s skewed spending priorities, making it clear that the problem was not a lack of funds. One stark example: PPS’s decision topay union-busting consultant Yvonne Deckard some $15,000 per month–a total cost of $360,000 in taxpayer dollars over two years if she completes her no-bid contract, which runs through June. At the same time, the school district claimed it couldn’t find the money to maintain teachers or programs in art or physical education, or even libraries in many schools.
Teachers also pointed out the refusal of the district, which recently announced an unexpected $29.9 million in revenue, to put any of this money into the classroom Instead, school officials funneled the majority into a $34 million district reserve fund. (As an additional blow, much of the unexpected revenue came from recent cuts to the statewide Public Employee Retirement System, meaning teachers were already suffering reductions in benefits they were previously guaranteed.)
The district’s money hoarding even motivated a number of Oregon state representatives to send a letter to the school board, using remarkably similar language to “The Schools Portland Students Deserve”:
We are heartened by the [additional revenue forecast]…for PPS next school year, thus providing even more resources to reduce class sizes. Our expectation for our reinvestment budget was to make sure school districts had the resources to hire additional teachers and other educational professionals in order to decrease class sizes and improve the learning environment for all students.
The legislators’ letter concluded with a call for the “Portland Public Schools our children deserve.”
Another influential statement came from Rev. Chuck Curry , who wrote an “Open Letter from Portland Religious Leaders Concerning the Possibility of a Portland Teacher Strike” that was co-signed by 20 religious leaders of different faiths across the city.
“We stand in support of the PAT,” the letter begins, offering backing for the teachers’ demand for a “fair and balanced contract that both lowers class sizes and lifts up underpaid professional teachers.”
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BUT MOST impressive in the teachers’ strike preparations was the outpouring of grassroots and neighborhood-based support from parents and community members who, inspired by the teachers, were determined to put all the pieces together in order to insure the success of a strike.
In the weeks following the February 5 strike vote, hundreds of community members were recruited from among thousands of signers of petitions circulated by the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign (PTSC) and among Jobs with Justice activists. They were put to work spreading the word about options for parents in case of a strike and pooling local resources for child care and food distribution in every cluster.
PAT supporters could be seen outside nearly all of the district’s 80 schools, handing out thousands of leaflets, window signs and buttons. “Support Teachers” lawn signs were strategically targeted to surround school board members’ homes, and to line major streets. In the last few weeks, churches, unions and community centers began to offer strike-day child care.
As Jamie Partridge, an organizer with the PTSC and a retired letter carrier, said:
I was amazed at the outpouring of support for teachers, despite the constant drumbeat of anti-union propaganda from the district and local corporate media. Long-time and first-time activists understood the importance of this fight and jumped into organizing their schools and neighborhoods…I think it was when we actually put together the strike plan that we got the district to move.”
Meanwhile, the Portland Student Union (PdxSU) continued to plan and mobilize student support for teachers, spreading the message loud and clear that if “They strike, we strike, too!” Students had planned a march for the first day of the strike and were helping to coordinate baby-sitting and other strike resources where needed.
Cleveland High School senior Ian Jackson said that even if the settlement proves to be a win for the teachers, “There’s still a lot of work to do. The PdxSU stands by the statement that there can be no compromise when it comes to our education. Even if we win this, there’s still going to be standardized test-driven curriculum, there’s still going to be racism and inequity in our schools. The contract campaign was just a beginning.”
Together, the community organizing and students’ support for their teachers helped to counter the district’s attempts to weaken the union, especially in the last few weeks. When the district tried to say that a strike would only hurt the students, students walked out for their teachers, and churches pledged to provide child care.
When the district and mainstream media began claiming that a strike would hurt minorities and low-income families the most, these communities came together to coordinate child care in their neighborhoods and mobilize for district-sponsored English Language Learner parent forums to help spread the truth in multiple languages.
Further countering the district’s attempt to divide the community, the local chapter of the NAACP, the N/NE Coalition of Neighbors and the Black-led Portland Parent Union all came out with statements of support for the PAT.
Now, rather than winding down their organizing, teachers, parents and community activists are eager to maintain the current momentum and newfound community engagement. Discussions are on about possible next steps in a larger struggle to reclaim public education.
As Steve Lancaster, the PAT bargaining team member, wrote in his message to fellow teachers:
As we return to “regular life” and find ourselves buried in work, please keep the fire of activism burning. Remember how much further we still have to go to reach our ultimate goals. Achieving a school environment that is just survivable is not nearly enough. So recharge while we regroup, and prepare yourself for the next battle to win back our schools!