OAKLAND — In June, after San Francisco voters overwhelmingly supported a tax measure to boost teachers' salaries, Oakland school board member Noel Gallo felt confident that his East Bay school system would be able to do the same.
Beginning Oakland teachers make just $39,000 a year — more than $10,000 less than their novice counterparts in San Francisco — and it is widely agreed that the district must do something to make pay in Oakland Unified School District more competitive.
"The reality is, if you look at some of the lowest-performing schools, half of the teaching staff leaves every year," Gallo said.
Before the school year came to a close in June, Gallo said, he and State Administrator Vincent Matthews met with Oakland teachers' union leaders to hash out a fundraising measure that would benefit the district's instructors. Gallo said that he and Betty Olson-Jones, the president of the Oakland teachers' union, even met with a union leader in San Francisco to see "how they did it."
Over the summer, however, it became clear that the teachers' union had major problems with the tax proposal, Gallo and Matthews said. And since August, when Matthews put the $120 per parcel "Outstanding Teachers for All Oakland Students" tax on the ballot, the state administrator and the board member have essentially stood alone in favor of it.
Now, with little funding and scattered support, and with the country in the midst of an economic crisis, Measure N appears unlikely to receive the two-thirds approval it needs to pass Nov. 4.
The Oakland teachers' union voted to oppose the parcel tax and is actively campaigning against it, even though the levy would generate about $10 million a year for teachers' salaries. Gallo's school board colleagues advised Matthews not to go forward with the election.
During a Monday morning news conference, even Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan and Assemblymember Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, urged voters to vote against the tax.
"We all support higher teacher salaries," Jordan said. However, she added, "This is a flawed plan precisely because it was undemocratically put together."
Sharon Cornu, executive director of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, said this might be the first time in more than 100 years that the council has taken a "no" position on an education fundraising measure.
Opponents say that Oakland voters just approved a permanent parcel tax in February, and that it is too soon to ask homeowners to increase their tax bills. They say the flat tax — with every landowner paying $120 a year, regardless of the size of their property — is unfair, and that large corporations and developers should pay more.
Another contentious aspect of Measure N is that it allots 15 percent of the tax revenue to Oakland's public charter schools, which educate about 18 percent of the city's public school children. The labor unions generally are opposed to the independently run charters, arguing that they operate like private schools and that they should not receive public funding.
In addition, there is the question of equity: Why should teachers benefit from a tax, and not other school employees?
Olson-Jones said that it has been difficult to campaign against an initiative that could give her members 7 percent raises. "I know that, at $39,000 a year for beginning teachers, it's really hard to attract and then keep teachers in Oakland," she said.
Still, she compared the tax to a Christmas gift that contained a "poison pill."
Olson-Jones and other opponents of Measure N have characterized the parcel tax as a political sleight of hand by Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public education.
Five years after the state issued a multimillion dollar emergency loan to the district, a state appointed administrator still controls Oakland Unified's finances. As a result, Matthews had the power to authorize the parcel tax election without board approval.
At Monday's news conference, Olson-Jones criticized O'Connell. "You'd think he'd ask teachers and parents and school board members and labor."
But Matthews says that the measure was hardly something concocted in Sacramento, as some have suggested. "We were in constant communication (with the teachers' union), and thought we were making good progress," he said. "Over one weekend, the tenor changed."
Olson-Jones remembers it differently. "We met and said 'No, we're not interested.' "
Gallo said he is not optimistic that N will pass, but that he often encounters teachers and parents who hope that it will. "I haven't heard anyone — including the Oakland Education Association — saying it's not good for teachers," he said.