OAKLAND — After more than two years of failed negotiations with its teachers, the Oakland school district administration informed the union that it would not return to the bargaining table.
The Friday afternoon development stunned the union leaders, said Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones. Just days before, a mediator had released a set of recommendations for resolving the dispute, which called for a modest pay increase for teachers. The district's final offer includes no pay raises or cuts.
"Clearly, we're incredibly distressed by this," Olson-Jones said. "As far as we're concerned, the strike is definitely on."
Olson-Jones was referring to a one-day strike scheduled for April 29. The union has not voted on whether to hold an extended strike; a membership meeting is scheduled for May 3.
Some teachers had hoped the "fact finding" report, released this week, would offer another chance for the two sides to reach a settlement. The recommendations included a shortened work year, a 2 percent pay increase beginning in 2012, and larger raises for the district's longest-serving teachers — a far cry from the 15 percent raise the union had demanded.
But Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said the report contradicted itself by acknowledging the district was broke and then recommending pay increases that would cost at least $5 million, by the district's estimation.
"We just don't believe the fact finder's report is an acceptable starting point," Flint said.
Ironically, the administration's appointee to the fact-finding panel, Ron Bennett, indicated in the report that he agreed with the findings made by the author, Christopher Burdick. The union's appointee, Ward Rountree, wrote that he didn't agree with all of the findings, but that he thought they "provide a solid foundation for the parties to settle this dispute "... ."
The union's mantra during the past two years has been: "The money is there. It's a question of priorities." In response, Burdick wrote that money spent on "central office administration, staff, consultants and their fatty contracts "... amounts only, at the end, to several million dollars in possible savings. "... That the OUSD's financial state, now and into the short-term future is woeful is almost beyond dispute."
The mediator did suggest the district set aside 60 percent of any "new dollars" for salaries, smaller class sizes and case loads, and that the two sides create a plan to bring the district up from the lowest-paying in Alameda County to the "midpoint" of other county school districts.
The 28-page report mixes contractual language with frank assessments of the district's history and the sour relationship between the union and the administration.
In response to the union's points about the school district's "historical missteps," he wrote: " "... blaming those who went before us and pointing to their (multitudinous) errors and miscalculations, while surely cathartic, merely condemns us to preoccupy ourselves with the past and to abandon hope for the future and surely does not produce any new revenues."
Flint said district staff did have concerns about the implications of their decision not to return to the bargaining table. But, he said, "We feel we just need to take action that will bring this to a resolution.
"Really, from a public relations standpoint, it would have been easier to go back to the table and continue the charade of bargaining," he added. "We took a decision that's likely to be unpopular from a perception standpoint, but that ultimately will be more productive."
Olson-Jones, however, said she felt the move might have the opposite effect. "We did not expect this," she said.