Teachers, District Far Apart in Oakland Strike

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At the end of the first full week of the teachers' strike in Oakland, Calif., both district officials and union representatives reported little progress and no end in sight.

Both the 3,500-member Oakland Education Association, which went on strike Feb. 15, and school district officials held out little hope late last week of a quick resolution to their differences over pay and class sizes.

District officials say there is no room in the $330 million budget to meet the teachers' demands for higher salaries and smaller classes.

But the union thinks the district is top-heavy and says money spent on administration could be put to better use elsewhere. "They're unwilling to dig into their administrative pot of gold," Peter Haberfeld, a co-executive director of the union, said last week.

The strike came after months of labor turmoil in the district. Teachers have been without a contract since June 30, 1994. The teachers walked off their jobs for two days in November and staged a one-day strike in January.

Though attendance was light, schools remained open last week, staffed with substitutes and some regular teachers who crossed picket lines, said Sherri Willis, a district spokeswoman.

On the first day of the walkout, only 14.9 percent of the district's 52,000 students showed up, Ms. Willis said.

On Feb. 21, attendance was 19.3 percent, and 34 percent of the teaching force reported to work, she said.

Striking teachers last week began holding classes in "strike schools" that were set up in homes and churches. The off-campus schools had been formed at about 50 of the district's 90 schools, Mr. Haberfeld said.

In a gesture of solidarity with the teachers' demands, the Oakland City Council last week offered city parks and recreation facilities for use as strike schools.

Demands Modified

Ms. Willis said district negotiators were hindered last week because they were waiting for the outcome of a state audit before they could know the district's exact financial situation. The audit's results are not expected until March 13.

Mr. Haberfeld was skeptical. "There's no other district in the state that needs a state auditor to tell them how much money they spend on administration."

A fact finder's report last fall predicted that the district would spend 19.9 percent of its general revenue this year on administration, Mr. Haberfeld said, while the average for districts in the San Francisco Bay area is 15 percent. Bringing the district down to that average could yield about $10 million, he argued.

Ms. Willis disagreed. "We're reasonably confident this audit will not reveal any huge pots of money." The district has had financial troubles for years. In 1989, a grand jury declared the district "near insolvency." A state-appointed trustee oversaw its affairs from 1990 to 1995, Ms. Willis said.

In the current negotiations, the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is seeking a 5 percent pay increase in this school year. The union is seeking another 5 percent raise in 1996-97.

The district has countered with an offer of a 3.73 percent cost-of-living increase, plus a 1 percent bonus for signing a new contract.

Last week, the union modified its proposals for class-size reductions, abandoning altogether a demand for reducing class sizes in grades 7 through 12, Mr. Haberfeld said.

The teachers modified their class-size proposal for grades 1-4, raising the acceptable number of students to 24 from 23. For grades 5 and 6, they raised the ceiling to 26 from 25.

Classes in grades 1 to 3 now have up to 30 students, and grades 4 to 6 have as many as 31.

District negotiators made a counteroffer late last week, but details were not immediately available. Earlier, the district had proposed a plan for class-size reductions that would phase in smaller classes gradually.

Vol. 15, Issue 23

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