Why are teachers leaving Oakland?

Apr 21, 2015

It’s 8:08am, the Friday before spring break, and under other circumstances Kathleen Byrnes would already be at work.

“We would be in our classrooms preparing for the day, which is where we would rather be,” she says.

But instead, she’s out in front of Oakland’s Cleveland Elementary School with her fellow teachers -- not working. They’re waiting seven minutes until 8:15 am exactly. Since February, teachers have been protesting low pay by working from only from 8:15 to 3 pm -- the minimum hours required by their contract. It’s called work-to-rule. And it means things that parents expect, like student evaluations, are not making their way home. They are sitting unfinished in baskets.

“And they've been sitting in baskets for about a month, because I don't have time to get to them,” explains Byrnes.

Nobody thinks that being a public school teacher is an easy profession, or a lavishly paid one. But teachers in Oakland have really been feeling the pinch. Despite working in one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, teachers in the Oakland Unified School District have gotten only a few percent raise in the past decade. They’re currently the lowest paid public school teachers in Alameda County. And close to a fifth of them leave the district every year. Teacher turnover is a national issue as well, but in Oakland things have been getting more heated as contract negotiations drag on.

The union wants teachers to get a raise, smaller classes, and more school counselors. The district understands all that but says it doesn’t have the resources to go as far as the union is pushing.  And even without the contract problems, many, many teachers are unhappy in the Oakland Unified School District. Seventy percent of teachers stop teaching in Oakland in their first 5 years. Seventy percent. Nationwide that number is between 40% and 50% - which is already huge.

The money...

Just a few blocks up the hill from Cleveland Elementary, right where Park Boulevard meets 580, is Oakland High School. Here, teachers are still working more than the minimum hours, though they did protest by closing their classrooms to students  during lunch.

US History teacher Jesse Shapiro grew up in Oakland. Like a lot of Oaklanders, he’s committed to his city. He’s been a teacher for eight years, six of them here.

“Finally I've reached a point where it's like I have a stride, where I can do the other nuances of teaching other than planning,” he says. “I'm able to give better feedback to students, help them out socially and emotionally. Kids come into the classroom and they know they're going to get a good product because people know who I am around here. I've earned that.”

He’s also finally gotten the classroom he’s always wanted.

“Most of the classrooms don't have windows, you can see that I have one,” he says. “The lovely corner penthouse suite that I inherited from Steven Moreno, who was our department head, who fled to a higher paying district just a few years ago.”

Right there is one of the main reasons that Oakland is losing its talent. With an average salary of $55,000, teachers like Shapiro could drive a few miles to San Leandro and get an immediate $15,000 raise. The teacher that left this room was one of Shapiro’s mentors. Shapiro says his mentor is now making close to six figures teaching in Redwood City. And if this teacher called him up --

“And said ‘hey, we've got a job out here, I want you out here, will you come?' It would be pretty difficult for me to say 'no, I love Oakland so much that I'm going to stay here and take a $40,000 pay cut.' You know?”

...And beyond the money

Beyond pay, many teachers feel that the district doesn’t support them and doesn’t respect them. When she stops by Shapiro’s classroom, special education teacher Jessie Muldoon says she can’t afford classroom supplies. She has to use an online donations site.

“It feels pretty crummy that you're begging from your friends and family to subsidize your job basically,” she says, adding that she thinks about leaving the district all the time.

Social studies teacher Emily Macy complains of not having enough support staff.

“We have a library but no librarian,” she says. “They’ve tried to decrease academic counselors down to two, so it’d be two counselors serving 1500 students.”

The state recommends that a school the size of Oakland High should have four or five counselors. Currently there are three. Two would be below the legal limit.

“I think in this school district there's this expectation that we're going to fulfill all those roles,” says Macy. “Because those actual jobs are not being funded the way they should be.”

That means when they need support, teachers look to each other. “The teachers run this school” says Shapiro. “And the superintendent's office needs to understand that.”

Why no resources?

Troy Flint is the spokesperson for the district. He points to two reasons they have less cash than they might.

“Poor money management led to bankruptcy in 2003,” he says. “The state took control and we only gained local control in 2009, we're still paying off over $50 million at $6 million a year.”

And second, there just aren’t as many students.

“We're a district that in about a dozen years went from roughly 55,000 students down to about 38,000 students if you’re not including our charter schools,” he says. Most of that drop-off is because a lot of students who were in the district are now in those charter schools, and they’ve taken their funding with them. Meanwhile, the district still has almost as many schools now as it did before the students left.

“We have probably 60-70% more schools that the average California district our size,” says Flint.

This is great if you think small schools are important, but not so great if you want to trim down the budget. Every teacher I talked with was so upset about how much money goes to administration. And Oakland used to pay yearly fines to the state because too little of its budget went to paying for teachers. The district says that that’s not true anymore. And the new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is planning on cutting almost a third off the budget for central office staff.

“That money is going out the teachers and out to school sites,” Flint says.

Teachers agree that they already have great benefits, and in this round of contract negotiations they will get a raise, but the issue is how much. The union is pushing to put them in the middle of what teachers get paid in Alameda County. The raise that the district is offering would keep them near the bottom.

Dedication to Oakland

Back at Oakland High, the bell rings and Jesse Shapiro starts lecturing on the Vietnam War.

“Good morning everybody! Take a look at the timeline. Based on the timeline - what do you notice about the history of Vietnam?” he asks the students.

With few resources and better job prospects one city over, you might ask why teachers stay in this city at all. Shapiro’s at an age when many teachers either cast their lot with Oakland or move on. He can see it both ways.

“I have a friend I went to middle school with,” he says. “His daughter is a freshman at Oakland High. And she's going to be in my class in a couple years. He chose to send his daughter here and one of the reasons is he says 'Oh - you know, your Uncle Jesse's going to be able to watch over you.’”

On the other hand Shapiro’s wife -- who’s also a teacher, but in Hayward -- is pregnant. So they need to decide not only what’s best for Oakland but what’s best for their family.

“I’d say right now I'm probably 60-40 I'm going to stay,” says Shapiro. “I feel a sense of responsibility to give back to the district that I grew up in. But on the other hand if I were to leave, I just think about like, you know, people from this community who grew up in this community who want to teach in this community don't because they don't feel respected.”

Contract negotiations have been going on for over a year, but will hopefully be wrapped up by June. Their outcome will help make those hard decisions for Jesse Shapiro and all the other Jesse Shapiros in the district.