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Pact Ending Strike Brings Fragile Peace

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Oakland, Calif Superintendent Carolyn Getridge brought the 23-day teachers' strike here to a symbolic end last week when she walked out of her office, crossed the street, and offered handshakes and hugs to teachers gathered on a small stretch of grass.

The teachers, who had voted the day before to approve a new contract, were dismantling the tents and picket signs outside the district offices that had come to serve as de facto strike headquarters.

"This is the beginning of a new school year, that's the way I look at it," a beaming Ms. Getridge said as she greeted the teachers March 20. "A four-year contract--that gives us 3-1/2 years of peace so we can work together so this never has to happen again."

But if she needed any reminder of just how bitter teachers felt about the "old" school year, she had only to look down. There, on the street beneath her feet, were the remains of graffiti written in chalk by angry union protesters just two days earlier.

The longest teachers' strike in this city's history officially ended March 19 with an overwhelming vote of support for an agreement reached between district and union negotiators. The 3,500-member Oakland Education Association had been without a contract since June 1994.

The settlement will give teachers a raise of about 22 percent over four years. It also calls for reductions in elementary school class sizes over the next two years, cuts of $3.5 million in the administrative costs of the the district, which has an overall budget of $330 million, and stricter academic standards.

All sides hailed the agreement and expressed relief that the city's 52,000 students could finally go back to school. Recalling a 19-day strike in 1986, most parents, teachers, and administrators said they wanted to avoid a dangerous cycle of contract disputes.

But the agreement offered at best a fragile peace for what has become a deeply divided community. That peace will be tested this week, when three of the district's seven board members are up for re-election. A group of angry parents has launched an effort to recall three others in November.

"Even if things go back to normal, normal is very bad in Oakland," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California in nearby Berkeley and a former Berkeley school board member. "The strike further undermined any faith at all the public had in those schools," he said.

Emotional Roller Coaster

The Oakland district has long been plagued by financial and management troubles, which led the state to appoint a trustee to oversee its budget from 1990 to 1995.

Many of its schools date from the 1920s, and officials estimate that more than $500 million in repairs and renovations are needed. Hundreds of parents boycotted an elementary school last year to protest what they considered inadequate renovation plans. (See Education Week, June 14, 1995.)

And in 1993, state and federal officials harshly criticized the district for poor management of bilingual-education programs, problems that had persisted for years.

The current school year has been marred by turmoil over the contract dispute. Teachers, calling for salary increases and smaller classes as well as cuts in what they have long claimed is a bloated administrative staff, staged brief walkouts in November and January. They went on strike to stay on Feb. 15, and early efforts to reach a settlement failed.

Mayor Elihu Harris offered a settlement proposal on March 13, and the two sides neared an agreement March 16, but talks quickly collapsed again.

On March 18, teachers returned to picket lines. Later that afternoon, at the hotel where negotiators were meeting, bleary-eyed union and district leaders emerged to announce a settlement.

The school board and district officials approved the agreement that evening. The next day, union members approved it 1,043 to 330.

"This is not a perfect contract, but it's a base for future struggles," said Benjamin Visnick, the president of the Oakland Education Association.

Many teachers said they voted for the contract even though it was only a partial victory. "I voted yes because it's a step, but I didn't feel good about it," said Nancy Midland, a 3rd-grade teacher at Sequoia Elementary School.

Voices in Dissent

It was apparent last week that the settlement, though welcomed, would not immediately erase the long-simmering tensions in the district. During the strike, many parents had begun placing their children in private schools, saying they had had enough.

A group of students and community activists organized a movement opposing the contract because it offered no language to reduce class sizes in junior high and high schools. "In some of my classes there's not enough desks," said Lisa Gardere, a junior at Oakland High School. "We need to get a better contract, something that includes all of the students."

In the March 26 school board elections, three incumbents, two of whom have union-backed challengers, were seeking re-election. A third incumbent, Noel Gallo, had won the support of the union.

Many teachers said they believed the election, and the burgeoning recall movement, offered a chance to rid the district of unresponsive board members.

Supporters of the recall effort against the three board members whose seats were not up for election complain that those members refuse to find ways to hold meetings in a space large enough to allow residents to have their say.

The group will need 6,000 signatures to place the recall measure on the ballot in November.

District officials acknowledged that it would be a long road to getting the community back together. "I think the district will have to invest in doing workshops, seminars, and retreats based on communication so that this will never happen again," said Darolyn Davis, a district spokeswoman.

Ms. Davis pointed out that many of the district's problems began long before Ms. Getridge took over in August 1994, and she noted that the school district had only been out of state supervision for seven months. "When the state runs the place, they determine what the priorities are," Ms. Davis said.

In reaching agreement with the union, Ms. Davis said, the school board was careful not to agree to a contract that the district could not afford--a mistake a previous board made in 1986.

Misdirected Fire?

Not all the rancor that remained after the settlement was reserved for the district. One teacher, who asked not to be identified, questioned the motivations of the union leadership.

He said he had grown tired of the union's complaint that the district spends too much money on administration. He maintained that the issue was merely a union ploy for bargaining power, and said that the district needs administrators to run the myriad of federal and state programs required by law.

"I'm getting tired of hearing the same rhetoric from my union leaders," he said.

Mr. Noguera of Berkeley said the union was right to press the district for administrative cuts.

But he said most of the teachers' fire was misdirected. "They know as well as anyone that the state controls the purse strings."

Nearly 55 percent of school funding in California comes from state revenues. Proposition 13, the tax-limit measure passed in 1978, severely limits the revenues that districts can raise locally, and state aid to schools was essentially frozen in the early 1990s.

"Instead of making this a political issue for California, we're fighting these issues in urban districts," Mr. Noguera said. "The solution can't be found in Los Angeles or San Diego or Oakland, it's in Sacramento."

Staff Writer Drew Lindsay contributed to this report.

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