Schoolchildren Will Be the Losers 

Oakland's schools and teachers are threatening to let politics disrupt the lives and education of tens of thousands of students.

People in Oakland have been talking strike like it's a walk in the park. They've been strangely nonchalant about the prospect of Oakland's schoolteachers walking off the job. School district administrator Randy Ward held a job fair for scabs and orchestrated a press conference last week with forty principals standing behind him, during which he treated the strike as almost inevitable. The Oakland teachers' union held a similar rally a few days earlier, urging parents not to send their children to class if a walkout occurs. Everyone seems to have ignored how painful this fight could truly become.

Oakland went through this ten years ago, and it was far worse than you can imagine. Most of today's parents probably have no idea how ghastly that fight was. But make no mistake: The 1996 teachers' strike was a bloody affair. To this day, teachers, parents, politicians, and administrators still work next to people they hate because of the passions born of that conflict.

In February 1996 more than fifty thousand students were idle for more than a month, as 3,500 teachers walked off the job over a dispute about wages. Teachers who crossed the picket lines were denounced as scabs -- many still bear the stigma of having betrayed their colleagues. "Strike schools" were set up in city facilities in a desperate attempt to keep students from falling too far behind. A group of parents launched a recall campaign against three school board members, and teachers took to picketing their homes. When union members picketed the high-rise apartment of school board trustee Luella Harrison, tenants in her building threw flower pots at the crowd below, who ran for cover as they smashed on the sidewalk. Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan, who was a trustee at the time, recalls getting racist death threats over the phone. "It was a horrible strike," she says. "Kids were probably behind for years -- it was a horrible problem. You literally had schools where teachers wouldn't talk to each other for years after the strike. ... My kids were, I thought, mistreated by school staff for years afterward."

As tempers flared and children wandered the streets, the conflict quickly took on a racial component, pitting black administrators against mostly white teachers. J. Alfred Smith, the pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church, said at a press conference, "The majority of teachers are white persons who live outside of Oakland but will come to work tomorrow to get their paychecks." In the most notorious incident, Luella Harrison got into a shouting match with Gerald Sanders, a local activist who was running to unseat her, in a hallway outside the district's trustee chambers. Sanders claimed Harrison called him a "white man's nigger," but she angrily denied the charges.

According to Peter Haberfeld, the strike generated so much racial animus that in its aftermath, black parents sometimes followed white teachers around school to make sure they weren't hurting their children. "There was a lot of suspicion among African-American parents in East Oakland," he recalls. "They were frightened that their kids weren't safe in the classroom."

Today, there's a very real chance that such a conflict could grip Oakland by the throat yet again. Last week, Randy Ward wrote to parents across the district, warning that "it appears we must now prepare for the worst." He added, "District policy is to keep schools open and operating on a normal schedule. ... We are prepared for the disruption a strike will cause and planning for your child's safety has been our single-minded concern. Indeed, the safest place for children during a strike is at school where adult supervision exists and teaching will occur, not in unsupervised settings wherever they may be."

Ward and the teachers are on the verge of war, but what they're fighting over isn't exactly clear. In fact, the two sides are just inches apart on most of the key issues. That 44,000 children may have their education disrupted because the teachers and state administrator can't make small concessions is galling.

The district and the union are fighting over four issues: wages, health benefits, involuntary teacher transfers, and whether to renegotiate these matters two years from now. On a couple of these items, each side has shown a willingness to meet the other halfway. Take the wages, for example. After almost a year of negotiating, Ward has agreed to the union's demand of a 4 percent raise (technically, restoration of a pay cut the union accepted two years ago). On the issue of health benefits, union representatives have known for months that their demand for virtually free health care is impossible. According to a district official, costs associated with teacher health benefits rose $5.7 million in the last two fiscal years, and everyone knows they'll continue to skyrocket.

Teachers enjoy both Kaiser and Health Net plans, but Health Net's costs rise far more quickly than Kaiser's. Ben Visnick, the teachers' union president, acknowledges that it's just not economically feasible to use Health Net much longer, and teachers will probably have to drop the plan. "We're not wedded to Health Net," he says, "but we want our members to have a choice of plans." The district, meanwhile, has offered to make an annual $1.5 million contribution, which should cover the costs of Kaiser for two years.

But health-care costs are rising so quickly that even the price of Kaiser's plan will likely exceed the district's $1.5 million offer three years from now, and teachers would have to start paying the difference out of pocket. The teachers' union finds this unacceptable. Union negotiators have offered to throw in roughly $1 million from teacher salaries to help offset the district's health-care expenses, but still want the district to be ultimately responsible for whatever inflation occurs down the road. So far, Ward has refused to consider this.

When the alternative is shutting down the schools for a month, reasonable people can find a way to settle this relatively minor difference. The teachers still get a great deal with Kaiser, and they know the district will always have financial problems, so they should dump their Health Net plan. In return, Ward should agree to pay all of the Kaiser plan costs for the life of the three-year contract.

Instead, Ward and the teachers' union are playing games with Oakland's kids. When Ward agreed to the 4 percent raise, the union immediately declared that it wasn't enough after all, and that teachers would be satisfied only with a 7 percent raise. "Every time we step forward and ask them to shake our hand for a deal, they step back and say, 'No, we want some more if you want to shake our hand,'" Ward says. "It's as if they believe we have some hidden vault somewhere."

When Randy Ward first came into the district, great ideas were at stake. Would Oakland's schools ever be subject to the democratic process again? Would Ward's innovative notions about pairing poor children with quality teachers really pay off? Can a once-working-class city, whose population is increasingly childless and white-collar, really afford a quality education for those children who are left? Now, however, we're just talking about which health-care plan costs the most. But for some reason, we're prepared to shut down the schools over it. If the unthinkable happens, tens of thousands of parents will want to know why they're scrambling to find a babysitter while Ward and the teachers argue over how big the copay will be. They won't be in a very good mood.

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