IT WOULD be nice to give Oakland teachers a raise. Most of them work hard in one of the most challenging school districts in the state. They have been laboring without a contract for nearly two years. At an average base salary of $53,800 a year, they are among the lowest paid K-12 instructors in the area. They deserve more.
But the Oakland Unified School District cannot afford to pay them more. For six years, the insolvent district operated under the leadership of a state-appointed administrator. The school trustees were essentially advisory. It was only last year when the residents' elected representatives were given back control of their district.
To turn around now and start granting raises the district cannot afford would be irresponsible. That's why the school board this week, after two years of failed negotiations, after impasse was declared, after nine mediation sessions, after an investigation from a fact-finding panel, decided it had to act unilaterally and impose a contract.
Under the imposed contract, there will be no raises but the district will absorb rising benefit costs. It's not a pretty picture. But the district can afford no more.
We understand the teachers' frustration. But they have to accept some responsibility. They successfully fought a November 2008 parcel tax that would have raised money for the schools because they objected to provisions that would have directed some of the money to charter schools. They have threatened to do the same if a similar measure is placed on the ballot this fall. The teachers have also been unrealistic at the bargaining table, demanding a 15 percent pay hike over three years and small class sizes.
That sort of intransigence led to the state-appointed fact-finder. He noted that the district must make payments on the $100 million it borrowed from the state starting in 2003 to climb out of insolvency. That, in addition, it needs to cut well over $35 million from a general fund budget of about $250 million in the upcoming fiscal year to balance its books.
"That the OUSD's financial state, now and into the short-term future, is woeful is almost beyond dispute," wrote fact-finder Christopher Burdick.
What we find incongruent is his recommendation that the district commit to a 2 percent salary increase in 2012 — and a much larger boost for the district's longest-serving teachers — without any knowledge of what district finances will look like at that time.
While that's a far cry from the absurd teacher demand of 15 percent, it would still commit money the district might not have.
Fortunately, district trustees seem to recognize that. They're imposing a contract that's realistic considering the district's current financial quagmire.