The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

Page 7 of 7

But more significant, and more pressing, is the hardened position Visnick and other union leaders are taking against Ward's latest contract proposal. Even though the union's own bargaining team reached a tentative agreement on that proposal late last month, Visnick and the union's leadership voted overwhelmingly against it and are urging Oakland's nearly 3,000 rank and file teachers to do the same.

The main sticking point is Ward's plan for passing some of the district's rising healthcare costs on to the teachers. Visnick argues that teachers should not have to endure any more cuts, considering the 4 percent salary reduction of two years ago. Instead, Visnick and other union leaders say Ward should borrow more money from the state's $100 million line of credit. So far, Ward has spent $65 million -- $57 million to cover the debt Chaconas created and $8 million more to cover cost overruns he's had since. "Rather than make more of these cuts in education, we think he should use this money," Visnick said of Ward.

But Ward said he has no plans to borrow more for Oakland. Additional borrowing would just mean that the district would have less to spend on education in the future, he noted. In fact, he said he also has changed his mind about borrowing $11 million to create a reserve fund. "You're creating more of structural deficit by not making cuts," he said of Visnick's plan, shaking his head. "You're creating for the next generation a horror story."

The teachers are scheduled to vote on the contract on the evening of Wednesday, April 27 at Oakland Technical High School. If they follow their leaders and reject it, Ward could end up implementing his last offer unilaterally. And if that happens, a teachers' strike may not be far away. It would be bad news for everyone in Oakland, but especially for Ward and his reforms. Striking Oakland teachers have a history of getting what they want. Over the years, Oakland parents often have sided with their kids' teachers, particularly when those parents start panicking about their children being taught by substitutes for long periods of time. When that happens, parents usually make life miserable for their elected officials, demanding that they get the teachers off the picket line and back in the classroom by giving them what they're asking for. Teachers might vote to strike in the hope that it will be a one-way ticket out of town for Randy Ward.

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