OAKLAND — Oakland's new superintendent of schools, Tony Smith, reported some sobering news at a meeting in the fall: The state's finances were so rocky that the district likely would be forced to slash up to $100 million in the near future.
"This is not about holding our breath," Smith said. "This is not simply about doing business as usual, and feeling like we can get through this and hang on."
If it wasn't clear at the time whether Smith considered collective bargaining to be "business as usual," it is now. On Wednesday night, he asked the school board to put an end to negotiations with the Oakland teachers union and impose its last contract offer, which included no changes to pay or benefits. It did.
The vote was unprecedented in the city's public school system. Never before has an Oakland school board unilaterally implemented a contract under which its teachers work. In doing so, it ended a process that began in January 2008, 18 months before the district emerged from a six-year state takeover and Smith began to lead the newly empowered district.
"It is an unfortunate and sad time," Smith said during a news conference Thursday morning, held in the same room where teachers had registered their anger and disgust the night before. "This is the closing out of two years of hard bargaining that started under state administration."
Smith acknowledged many of the points the union leadership has made: Oakland teachers are paid less, on average, than their peers in most districts in the area. Working conditions are often difficult. Turnover is high. The school district has failed to devote 55 percent of its budget to classroom teacher compensation, the minimum the state requires. Distrust runs deep.
The chief financial officer projects a $37 million deficit in its general purpose fund for next year and a 20 percent hole in its total operating budget. To keep the district afloat in the years ahead, Smith said, he will consider closing or merging 20 to 30 schools.
Despite these challenges, he said, the district managed to preserve existing pay and benefits for its employees. The state administration had asked the union to accept a 3 percent pay cut.
"I believe deeply in Oakland," Smith said, promising to find a way to raise teacher pay. "We can do this, and we have to do it together."
But for now, the decision has created an even greater rift between the district administration and the union, which is planning a one-day strike on Thursday. It also means a school district with a reputation for dysfunction and instability will once again face disruption. Union leaders — who opposed a local tax initiative to raise teacher salaries because independently run charter schools would also benefit — haven't threatened a longer strike, saying only that they are reserving the right to do so. A membership meeting is scheduled for May 3.
Ward Rountree, executive director of the Oakland Education Association, said contract imposition, for labor, is "analogous to a declaration of war." If Smith is attempting to create harmony in the district, Rountree said, "It was the worst decision he could have made."
"They chose to slam the door on the very people they say they care so much about," he said.
A painful history lesson might have factored into the board's decision. Gary Yee, a former Oakland teacher and principal, said he was elected to the board in 2002, during a time of great optimism. Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had given teachers a 24 percent raise, bringing their compensation to parity with other districts.
But soon after Yee joined the board, staff discovered a multimillion-dollar shortfall. Without a quick infusion of cash, the district wouldn't make payroll. Yee said he went to the state legislature to "beg for a $100 million line of credit." The district is now repaying the loan, at $6 million a year, into the foreseeable future.
His colleagues on the school board are determined not to make the same mistake, he said.
Mike Napolitano, whose children attend Claremont Middle School and Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland, said the state budget crisis has put the teachers and the administration in an impossible situation.
"Tony Smith seems sincere and hardworking and really wanting to make this change in Oakland, and I know the teachers are too," Napolitano said. "It's a shame they have to be in this type of confrontation because of what's happening at the state level."
A neutral fact-finder released a report last week that concluded the district's financial situation was desperate. The mediator said the district couldn't afford to meet the union's 15 percent raise demand, reduce caseloads for nurses and counselors or maintain small class sizes. Instead, he recommended a 2 percent raise in 2012 and an increase for teachers at the upper end of the salary scale. He also suggested the district use 60 percent of new, ongoing funds for teacher salaries and smaller class sizes.
But, to the union's surprise, the district administration said it wouldn't use the report as a basis to reach a settlement, saying it couldn't afford any raises. The state still holds veto power over the Oakland school board (through a mandatory, full-time trustee who earns $240,000 a year, plus benefits, from the school district's budget), and Smith said the state made it clear that no raises would be allowed.
Smith said he saw the contract decision as a way to start over. But if the teachers' reactions on Wednesday night were any indication, he won't be starting fresh.