The battle that’s about to erupt in Oakland is unlike any teachers’ strike before now – and the stakes are enormous.
On one side, teachers facing gentrification in the shadows of Silicon Valley can’t live on their meager wages as the tech boom explodes around them. But their school district is so broke, it’s about to suffer painful layoffs while struggling to pay for students in need.
The situation is dire, and both sides have reached a breaking point. Teachers are set to hit the picket lines Thursday morning, as district officials plan to rely on other employees to keep schools open.
He lives with several teachers to afford Oakland
When Will Corvin moved to Oakland, he and four other teachers moved into a three-bedroom house, knowing they would need to share rooms and a single bathroom.
“Last year, I lived in a divided bedroom where my roommate had to walk through my room to get to his,” the 23-year-old said.
Corvin said he made $46,500 last year before taxes. About a third of his paycheck, or $950, goes toward rent.
Trying to afford a place of his own isn’t feasible. Zillow estimates a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland goes for $2,680 in rent per month.
“When we were putting together our house last year, we didn’t have any furniture, so we went driving through the streets of Oakland and grabbed some chairs and a couple couches that were lying on the sidewalk,” Corvin said. “That’s how we furnished our house.”
He and his roommates are all young teachers, the future of the profession. Corvin became a teacher through Teach For America, a nonprofit that places young adults in underserved classrooms for a two-year commitment.
He is planning to strike Thursday because he wants to be part of the effort to change the “broken” district, he said. The Oakland High School history teacher wants to stay.
“It’s a job I really enjoy and get a lot of satisfaction from. It’s something that I hope to be able to continue to do,” he said. “I’ve made a real attachment to a lot of the students at my school. I think leaving before a lot of them graduate is an impossible idea for right now.”
The district says it overspent, but for good reason
All sides agree teachers should be paid more. The big debate is how much the Oakland Unified School District can afford.
Teachers are demanding a 12% increase in pay over the next three years. They also want more counselors and nurses, so schools can have at least one counselor for every 250 students and at least one nurse for every 750 students.
The school district has offered at least 5% raises over three years – short of what the Oakland Education Association is demanding.
That offer “will not keep pace with inflation,” said arbitrator Najeeb Khoury, who wrote an independent fact-finding report about the dispute.
“It is also clear that OUSD will have a very difficult time affording a 12% raise over three years, as it is in a structural deficit.”
School district spokesman John Sasaki said “there’s no question there’s been mismanagement over the years” – but not for the reasons you might think.
“We have done a lot more for our kids than other school districts. A lot of that is because in the city of Oakland, there’s a lot more need,” he said.
Sasaki said 75% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, and the district also offers them free dinner before they go home.
OUSD also has dental clinics where needy children can get checkups, and washers and dryers for students’ families who can’t afford them.
But the district says rising costs, insufficient funding from the state and its gaping deficit will require major budget reductions for the third year in a row – including layoffs.
Sasaki said about 112 employees could be laid off, but they will mostly come from the district’s central office. No teachers will be laid off.
The mass exodus of teachers
Shannon Carey has lived and taught in Oakland for 27 years. The only reason why she, her husband and two children can live there is because they pay a fraction of what others do in their rent-controlled apartment.
While sharing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment isn’t ideal for four people, the family can’t afford to buy a home in Oakland.
Carey said she made $82,000 before taxes last year and is the breadwinner of her family. The median sale price of homes was $695,400 in December 2018, according to Zillow.
“Me living in a rent-controlled apartment with a spouse who works allows me to stay here,” Carey said.
But she realized most of her colleagues aren’t so lucky.
“We need to pay teachers a livable wage so that they’ll stay,” she said. “We have a huge teacher retention crisis.”
The independent report said OUSD loses about 18.7% of teachers each year – “well above the state average.”
“Also, the retention rate is even worse at some high-needs schools, with West Oakland Middle School retaining only 9.1% of its teachers over a nine-year period,” the report states.
Carey has spent her entire teaching career with OUSD. She teaches English, history, physical education and advises students on internships at MetWest High School.
The teaching veteran has seen the city’s population change and the rents skyrocket since she moved to Oakland in 1992.
“People can’t afford to live in Oakland at all,” Carey said. “People from San Francisco and tech people (came). There are Google buses everywhere around here.”
She’s dipping into her savings to strike
Alex Webster Guiney will be striking this week, but she is worried about the effect it’ll have on her husband and two children.
“We’ll be dipping into our savings to cover my loss of wages during the strike,” Webster Guiney said. “It’s taken a toll on our family in that indirect way.”
Her entire paycheck goes to paying the mortgage on her two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Her husband, who is self-employed as a video producer, pays the utilities and covers the groceries.
The special education teacher made $52,800 before taxes last year and she’s in her eighth year teaching.
They bought the home for $426,000 in 2012 – now it’s valued at $975,000, she said.
“We would never be able to afford this house now,” she said.
“OUSD doesn’t understand if you want teachers to stay and to live in the city where they teach … they have to pay them to stay here.”