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California City and Striking Teachers Agree - We're Broke!

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Brett Myers

"The vast majority of teachers didn't show up for work today," according to Troy Flint, spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). That's good news for the Oakland teachers union, which says 91% of city teachers participated in today's strike.

With some exceptions, Oakland public schools have a notorious reputation. So much so that the state ceded control of the district in 2003 after the California Legislature passed a $100 million bailout for the insolvent school system. To make matters worse, the city regained control in June 2009, amid a crushing statewide budget crisis, which Flint says makes it "impossible for OUSD to pay teachers what they deserve."

The struggle between teachers and administrators is emblematic of a statewide problem, but both sides agree that the problems in Oakland are a little bit worse. Teachers here are already the lowest paid in Alameda County, which includes, among others, Berkeley Unified School district. And test scores are well below the state average.

And while surrounding districts have turned to teacher layoffs in response to state budget cuts, Betty Olson-Jones, President of the Oakland Education Association, which represents Oakland teachers, says that in the past few years, "the city has not laid off a single teacher." Why? Olsen-Jones says that it's because so many are leaving on their own accord, because they are not being fairly compensated for working in some of the region's toughest schools.

"Around 20% of teachers leave the district every year." But Olsen-Jones says "the numbers are much higher at schools in the flatlands," where she says 50-60% percent of the faculty turn over annually at some of the city's poorest schools.

Oakland teachers asked for a 15% raise over three years, and that class sizes at the city's lowest performing schools be limited to 18-20 students. They say they can't turn around local schools unless the city is willing to offer higher pay to attract and retain good teachers, and freeze class sizes, but last week the Oakland Unified School District implemented a contract that does neither.

OUSD's Troy Flint says the contract was the "last, best, and final offer" given the reality of state cutbacks. "We simply do not have the money at this point in time. We've made $40 million in cuts in the last two years, and we are facing $85 million in cuts that need to be made by July 1st."

The school district threatens that if teachers force the city's hand, the schools could return to insolvency and possibly even another state takeover. But the teachers union accuses OUSD of mismanaging funds, including spending more than $80 million on outside consultants and contractors, which they say is twice the rate average districts spend on contractors in the state of California.

The API, Academic Performance Index, is the statewide marker by which schools are measured, and Oakland's score has been climbing at a faster than average rate in recent years. OUSD's Troy Flint says "We've risen from the dregs of the state, and have made great improvements." But Oakland's 2009 API of 695 remains well below the county average of 775, and the state average of 755.

On Tuesday, with today's strike looming, the Oakland Unified School District announced it was ready to return to the bargaining table, and despite the fact teachers say they're anxious to negotiate, they went ahead with the walkout as planned. Both sides repeated today that the students' best interest is their paramount concern. But with more budget cuts on the horizon, it's hard to see an outcome that doesn't also hurt young people.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org