Teachers are protesting outside schools throughout Oakland today as part of a one-day strike aimed at drawing attention to stalled contract talks between the teachers' union and the school district.
The strike has drastically reduced attendance at schools throughout the Oakland Unified School District, Oakland Education Association vice president Manny Lopez said.
At Montera Middle School, where about 900 students are enrolled, only about 50 students showed up for class today, Lopez said.
The district hired about 300 replacement teachers for the day, and about 70 staff members from the central office also are spending the day teaching, district spokesman Troy Flint said.
The Oakland Education Association, which represents about 2,800 teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians, claims teacher salaries in Oakland are the lowest in Alameda County.
The teachers' union and the district moved farther apart last week when Oakland's school board voted to impose a contract on the union after more than two years of negotiations failed to bring an agreement on a new contract.
The imposed contract keeps teacher salaries level, with no raises as the union had requested, while covering the rising cost of benefits, Flint said. It will be in effect until a permanent agreement is reached, he said.
On Tuesday, the union received a letter from the district requesting a return to the bargaining table next week, and "the early indication is they're receptive to that idea," Flint said.
Lopez agreed, saying "we want to get this contract stuff behind us so we can get back to the business of teaching."
Little teaching was going on today, with the majority of the district's 38,000 public school students absent. Some students joined their parents and teachers on the picket lines, some of which started as early as 5 a.m.
Kristin Miller-Nicholas, whose two daughters attend Joaquin Miller Elementary School, brought her kids to the picket line this morning. She said they were among about a dozen families that joined the teachers outside the school today.
Miller-Nicholas said she is "supportive of the teachers...and what they want to have taken care of in a contract."
She said that as a daughter of two public school teachers in Michigan, she walked the picket lines with her parents in the 1970s.
"I've lived it, and when you grow up with it, with that background in your blood, you still feel strongly about it as an adult and a parent," she said.
Peter Mates, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School who won Alameda County's 2009 Teacher of the Year award, said parents at his school have been supportive of the strike, and that more than 85 percent of the 770 students at the school stayed home today.
Of the parents who sent their kids to school, "almost all were honking (their car horns) in support," and most said they only took the kids to school because no other means of child care was available during the day, Mates said.
Flint said "there has been a robust debate in the community" about the contract negotiations.
"From what I've seen and in talking to people, teachers do have a lot of support, obviously," Flint said. "People respect what teachers do and understand that they're underpaid for the work they're charged with every day."
"But many understand, though, that we're in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression," he said.
"At the same time, demands and expectations of what schools are supposed to provide is increasing," Flint said. He called it "an untenable situation."
Mates said he is hopeful that today's strike "sends a message that the resources of the district need to go in the classroom."
The strike is the district's first since 1996, Flint said.