OAKLAND — Two years after a narrowly averted strike, the Oakland teachers union plans to return to the bargaining table with an ambitious proposal.

The union, which represents some 3,000 teachers, counselors and nurses, will ask for a 20 percent raise. They also want class sizes in the district's lowest-performing schools reduced to 15, roughly half of the maximum size for grades four and above, and caps on class sizes and caseloads in special education. "If we don't set our expectations high now, we are saying the status quo is OK," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association.

Union leaders did not provide cost estimates for the pay increase and class size reduction proposals. Based on the average salary and number of employees, the raises alone would cost tens of millions of dollars.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon in front of the Castlemont Business & Technology School, Olson-Jones and other union officials said they knew the demands would be perceived by some as unrealistic or fiscally irresponsible, given the state budget deficit and Oakland's state takeover and fiscal situation.

Last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a 10 percent cut for all government programs, including a $4 billion reduction in education funding, and districts around the state are preparing to trim their expenses.

Many in Oakland are particularly concerned about staying out of the red, as a financial shortfall landed the district in state receivership in 2003.


The state Department of Education is still in charge of the school district's finances.

Troy Flint, the spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District, said the district also supports more funding for education, higher salaries for teachers and smaller class sizes.

"But the reality is, we're operating in a constrained economic environment," he said.

That is exactly why such a proposal needed to be made, Olson-Jones argues. California needs to adjust its priorities, she said, or schools in low-income communities will continue to suffer.

Increasing taxes on the Port of Oakland and other businesses statewide was among the solutions the union president proposed for increasing available funding for schools.

"We look at this as not so much negotiating with the Oakland Unified School District as negotiating with the state," Olson-Jones said.

Oakland teachers are paid less than their counterparts in some nearby districts. According to data collected by district administrators from the Alameda County Office of Education, a starting teacher with some additional course credits earns $40,700, compared with about $45,000 in Berkeley and $44,200 in Albany. Other school districts add the value of health benefits to the salary schedule, making a comparison more complicated.

Olson-Jones and others say higher salaries and better working conditions will stem the district's turnover rate. Last year, about 14 percent of Oakland's classroom teachers left the district — many of them from the most struggling schools.

Smaller student-to-teacher ratios, possibly through team-teaching, would provide better support to new teachers, said Jack Gerson, a union leader and math teacher at Leadership Preparatory High School at Castlemont.

As more inexperienced teachers are hired, pairing them with another educator could provide them with the training they need, he said.

"Team-teaching is a way to do what student-teaching used to do," Gerson said.

Katie Elmore, a social worker at Fremont Federation, a group of small high schools near Fruitvale, said her department is having little luck filling its vacancies. One candidate expressed interest this week, she said, but turned down the offer when she heard about the pay.

"Because they pay so poorly, these kids are not getting the mental health services they need," Elmore said. "It's a social justice issue."

The union and the school district will formally present their proposals at the Jan. 30 board meeting, and the negotiations will begin soon afterward. The current contract expires June 30.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.