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Oakland Unified Teachers Begin Voting On Potential Strike, Fight Against 2nd School Closure

OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Teachers at the Oakland Unified School District began voting after school on Tuesday on a potential strike.

Educators are holding the vote, which continues outside school hours until Friday, as they seek more student resources, smaller classes and what they're calling a "living wage" for workers.

According to the Oakland teacher's union, Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in Alameda County. The union is demanding a 12 percent raise over three years while the district is offering five percent.

The Oakland Education Association is also demanding smaller class sizes and more support for the district's 37,000 students, including hiring more school counselors and nurses.

This week's strike vote follows two "sick out" events on December 10th and January 18th, as teachers protest an ongoing stalemate in contract negotiations. The actions were not sanctioned by the union.

Voting comes just hours after the school district voted to close Roots International Academy amid protests. The middle school is the first of two dozen Oakland schools to be possibly impacted by closures, under a plan to close what the district says is a $30 million budget gap.

"This $30 million also comes after doing two years of budget restrictions," said OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki.

According to OUSD, many smaller schools will either be moved or "absorbed" into larger schools.

Parents and teachers at high-performing Henry J. Kaiser Elementary in the Claremont Hills fought back Tuesday evening against the district's plan to close the school and transfer its students to Sankofa Academy in North Oakland, which has significantly lower test scores.

Diedre McGhee, the parent of a second-grader at Kaiser, said she did extensive research before enrolling her son at Kaiser because of its small class sizes.

"He needs extra help and the teachers and counselors and having that smaller size has been great for him," said McGhee. "I'm just not sure if they move to a bigger school he'll have that specialized individual attention he needs."

Katy Hunter, a teacher whose children attended Kaiser years ago, was more blunt. "This is a bad decision. It's a bad choice," she said. "If you have a school in a district that's struggling and you have a school that's really successful, and you want to build on that, use us as a model."

Sasaki said the district selected Kaiser Elementary for possible closure because of its size. "The layout [of Kaiser] prevents us from expanding. Sankofa has a beautiful campus and a huge school," he said.

"What we want to do is take all the great things about Kaiser and put it on a bigger campus and put it into a blended school."

Hunter said she and other parents and teachers are already organizing to fight the closure. But Sophia, the mother of a Sankofa student who has been through a school closure, said if Kaiser does close, students will find a home in Sankofa.

"All I can say is if they merge this school with Kaiser, the kids from there will be loved. They'll be treated with respect. They'll be treated equally," she said.

Sasaki said it's unclear when the board will vote on closing Kaiser. Board members are expected to review the plan in February. The $30 million budget gap as well as other factors have led the district to heavily consider the many closures.

"A lot of students went to charter schools and private schools, and people can't afford to live in Oakland and have moved out of the area. It's been a whole collection of issues and it's all coming together at once," he said.

Teachers told KPIX 5 about the kind of struggles their current pay rate is causing.

"My colleagues are paying double my mortgage for a one bedroom apartment. A teacher that I worked with last year said that the year before, she was living in a van," said Chaz Garcia, a teacher with the district.

"I work with a teacher this year who has four roommates who are adults - we're not in a 'Friends' episode - we don't want to have that many people living in our home."

Garcia said that more resources and better wages in an increasingly expensive city are necessary for student success.

"Our working conditions are their learning conditions," said Garcia.

The president of the Oakland teacher's union said the organization could take legal action against the district, claiming labor violations following the school board's decision.

Sasaki said that the five percent raise is not the district's final offer for teachers.

"We have another offer ready to give them. We've asked them to come to the table and see that offer. It hasn't happened. We hope that happens soon--certainly before anything happens like a work stoppage," he said.

KPIX 5 reporters Juliette Goodrich, Andria Borba and Christin Ayers contributed to this article. 

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