Teachers Can Only Blame Themselves 

The state-appointed administrator of the Oakland school system is asking teachers to make more cuts. It's unfortunate, but at least it's a plan.

April 9, 2003 was crunch time for the Oakland schools. Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had presided over a $57 million deficit, state Senator Don Perata was asking his legislative peers to approve an unprecedented $100 million bailout, and lawmakers were all set to assign a state administrator to assume dictatorial control over the school district.

Thinking they had one last chance to retain local control, parents, a handful of teachers, and district leaders rode a fleet of buses to Sacramento, prepared to beg the Senate Education Committee to give Chaconas and the board one last chance to clean up the mess they had made. It was a long shot -- almost no one thought Oakland could escape a state takeover -- but they gave it everything they had. Unless they maintained a united front, the state would hand absolute power to an out-of-town administrator.

For all the group's passion and oratory, its hopes were dashed when the president of the Oakland teachers' union, Sheila Quintana, told the committee that her union had passed a vote of no confidence in Chaconas. Just like that, Oakland had a new commandant who answered to no one but state Superintendent Jack O'Connell. It was the biggest tactical blunder the city's teachers could have made.

Because a year and a half later, state administrator Randolph Ward is coming after the teachers, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Their contract is up for renewal, and Ward has demanded a number of dramatic concessions, including asking teachers to pay for the staggering rise in health-care costs, sit by as the district fires its guidance counselors, and give up the right not to be transferred between schools at his discretion. The teachers will never agree to this last demand -- especially not the veterans who run the union -- even though thousands of impoverished children in the district's flatlands could finally get a decent education as a result. In the days of Dennis Chaconas, the union could mobilize parents and community leaders to pressure the district on countless fronts, whittling down his demands until they reached a compromise. But Ward couldn't care less, because he's the big boss man. Now, a walkout may be the teachers' only option.

Quintana's anti-Chaconas vitriol boiled over on May 14 last year, when the school board tried to stanch the deficit by laying off about 260 janitors and cafeteria workers in one of its last acts as a free and independent body. Hundreds of employees, led in part by Quintana, shut down the school board chambers and chanted "no layoffs, no cuts," until the board called an overnight recess. The next morning, Quintana screamed at the board, while a line of cops stood ready. "How can you sleep at night?" the Oakland Tribune reported her as saying. "We don't have toilet paper at the school sites, and you're sitting there all smug and reserved!"

For five months, Quintana had told anyone who cared to listen what she thought of Chaconas, and her incessant criticism may have dashed his hopes of making the crucial budget cuts that would have saved the district from takeover. But look at the way the new administrator handles public input. Senator Perata, once widely seen as Ward's champion, has publicly criticized him on the steps of the district's headquarters for failing to meet with the community group Oakland Coalition of Congregations. On October 4, the city's Public Ethics Commission will hear a complaint that school officials refused to let members of the public into an ostensibly public January 28 meeting on the controversial plan to close five schools. Ward has hired a California Highway Patrolman to serve as his personal bodyguard -- at a cost of $140,000 in taxpayer funds. The principal of a local charter school was even banned from entering the district's headquarters after yelling at that very bodyguard.

Now, Oakland's teachers face a new round of contract negotiations -- and a new compendium of belt-tightening requests. The teachers agreed to a 4 percent pay cut last year to cope with the lean times, but now that the district's '03-'04 budget came in $1.5 million in the black, they're asking that their salary level be restored.

Not only has Ward not agreed to this, he wants teachers to pay for this year's calamitous rise in the cost of their health-care plan. "We already took a pay cut last year," says returning teachers' union president Ben Visnick. "He wants to cap our health benefits, freeze the district contribution to the health plan from '03-'04, and make us pay the difference."

According to its general counsel Roy Combs, the district is projecting a $6 million deficit this year. But Ward has a history of poormouthing to avoid concessions; last year, he predicted that the district's deficit would be $20 million, but the budget actually came in with a $1.5 million surplus. On the other hand, the teachers' union has shown disgracefully minimal leadership when it comes to raising money for the schools. Earlier this year, the union refused to endorse Measure E, a parcel tax that raised $90 million for the district. Visnick's rationale for staying neutral on the measure is an outrageous bit of politicking. "We predicted correctly that Ward would decide to use the money any way he saw fit, and we felt that endorsing it would have sent a message of confidence in his leadership," he says.

Now, of course, union leaders are pointing to that same $90 million as proof that the district can afford to pay members' health care -- the same $90 million they didn't lift a finger to raise. And frankly, Ward has a point about the health-care plan. HealthNet, the union's preferred health-care provider, just raised its premiums by 25 percent. Although the decline in the district's teaching staff reduced salary expenses by $23 million last year, the district's benefits costs stayed virtually flat. He has to figure out a way to get them under control, and don't think he can just tap the $100 million bailout fund -- which is, after all, a loan.

But forget the money -- what's really at stake this year is Ward's request for the power to unilaterally transfer teachers from one school to another. This may seem like a bland proposal, but in fact, it strikes at the heart of Oakland's deplorable record of educating poor black and Latino children. Almost everyone agrees that teacher quality is vital to improve the poor performance of kids in tough urban schools, but across the country, the most experienced teachers typically end up in the best-performing schools. There's a simple reason for this: No one wants to teach at ghetto schools, where the kids often have absent fathers, overworked mothers, no discipline, and a nest of poverty-related social and emotional problems. Experienced teachers rise in the union's seniority system and get to choose where to teach, and they usually pick nicer schools with well-behaved, middle-class kids. Last year, the Oakland Tribune reported that elementary schoolteachers in the Oakland hills earn an average of $10,000 more than teachers in the flatland schools. In short, the least experienced teachers are paired with the most disadvantaged kids, and another generation of the underclass is born.

Finally, Ward wants to interrupt this process, and he wants the power with which to do it. He has asked the union for the ability to, as Combs put it, "equalize the expertise throughout the district." Of course, this means destroying the union's seniority system, and Visnick claims there's no way his union will let that happen. "Just by saying to experienced teachers, 'You have to go back down the hill,' that won't work," he says. "Teachers will move out of the district."

Visnick favors a system of incentives instead, such as offering smaller class sizes or more money to lure experienced teachers to the flatland schools. But again, the district has no money to spare. It's a classic Hobson's choice: Either you blow a few million bucks you don't have on a pilot incentive program, which sacrifices thousands of poor kids to the status quo, or you force teachers to go back to dysfunctional ghetto schools and risk watching hundreds of your best teachers leave for Berkeley or San Leandro.

In earlier years, teachers had all sorts of leverage with which to negotiate issues such as this. They had an elected school board that oversaw the superintendent, and parent-teacher associations and community groups with which to ally. Now, all they've got is Ward. Things have gotten so tense that Visnick occasionally meanders into strike rhetoric. "Look what's happening in labor," he says "You've got the retail clerks, you've got the county workers, the nurses, everyone's being pushed around right now, and there's a lot more of us than them."

But Visnick and the rest of the union leadership should have seen this coming. Everyone should have known that Ward would have to be a hardass, but the unions did nothing to impede his ascension to power. And for all Visnick's rhetoric about solidarity and labor militancy, Ward's tenure may not be such a bad thing after all; at least he isn't dodging the schools' two biggest problems. District leaders prior to Chaconas did nothing to improve academic achievement, and Chaconas did nothing to fix its finances.

With these latest budget proposals, Ward has become the first school leader to try to do both. He may be an SOB, but he's our SOB.


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