Oakland Superintendent Proposes Tiny House Company Town for Underpaid Teachers
By Teresa K. Miller
In short, here’s the latest affront to the principles of public education: Oakland Unified School District’s superintendent has proposed not an adequate raise to teachers’ salaries, which have been effectively stagnant or declining relative to inflation for over a decade—and which are now too low to keep up with housing costs in the unevenly yet rapidly gentrifying city—but rather, in all seriousness, to build a “tiny house” community on publicly owned land to house teachers. This, in effect, suggests a company town, where teachers would be “compensated” in kind with housing to which they would have limited tenants’ rights rather than adequately remunerated for the work they do and allowed to pursue their preferred lifestyles accordingly. Below is a screenshot from the school board presentation on April 27; you’ll note that the alternative proposal is to use the (again, publicly owned) land for—wait for it—a golf school.
Not surprisingly, OUSD faces a teacher shortage.
I taught in the district for five years, during which time I earned impeccable evaluations and even an award for excellence from the superintendent. Still, when I’ve written about my experience in the past, I’ve felt compelled to approach the subject obliquely for fear of retaliation. Though administrators claim not to have the time, resources, or ability to get rid of a handful of underperforming teachers, strong educators have been pushed out for daring to highlight the massive problems with teaching conditions and resource management. As an outspoken union rep, I publicly addressed the school board several times, but I kept my paper trail sparse.
But now I’m not beholden to the vindictive whims of the district, and here’s the truth: This latest round of budget proposals is ridiculous, scary, and unacceptable—and the craziness isn’t new. While segments of the administration and front groups for charter organizations like to paint teachers as having it easy and just failing to do their jobs, the day-to-day reality on many campuses—even those in the more affluent Oakland hills—is that too few resources go to the classrooms while seemingly endless amounts of money are spent on consultants, yearly (yes, yearly) misguided and disorienting reorgs of the management structure, and bloated salaries for the frequently changing superintendent and whoever that person’s cronies happen to be—currently, Antwan Wilson and his colleagues from The Broad Academy.
For my first year and a half in OUSD, my classroom had no heat. This may not seem like a big deal in the Bay Area, but for days at a time during the winter, the thermometer in my room hovered in the 40s. My school was built in the 1950s and apparently had not had the electrical system updated since then, so my classroom was on a single circuit shared with the room next door. Having complained about the temperature, I was rustled up two large, loud space heaters from circa the school’s founding, and if they were running when the teacher next door used her printer, the fuse wouldn’t blow—instead, the individual wall outlet would melt, rendering it nonfunctional. Having told my administrators multiple times about the problem and been met with a shrug, I moved the heaters from outlet to outlet until almost all were melted. Years earlier, a space heater had burned up a classroom down the hall from me, and I had a half-charred bookshelf from that incident as a reminder that I was literally playing with fire.
My students entered my special ed classroom and immediately huddled around the droning heaters, rubbing their hands together, while I was expected to create a “no excuses” culture of achievement and inspire them to improve their math and reading skills. At the beginning of my second year—on a late-summer day in the high 80s—I asked one of my administrators at a staff meeting if we could please get facilities to work on the heating problem then, before it was an emergency, and he bellowed to all sweaty teachers assembled, “I’ll get it turned on right now!” That was the end of that discussion.
Finally, our site’s union reps enlisted a lawyer pro bono to help us file a Williams Complaint under California state law, which theoretically requires that students have sufficient materials (some classes were too overcrowded to offer everyone a textbook) and a safe environment for their education. In addition to the heat issue, bathrooms lacked both hot water and paper towels, and about a third of the staff (myself included) got swine flu before the vaccine came out. Classrooms didn’t have working locks on many exterior windows, so computers periodically got stolen and confidential records weren’t secure. Floor and ceiling tiles were missing or coming loose, and on and on.
An administrator whom we had petitioned for help over a period of 18 months—and whose hiring process, it turned out, had failed to reveal a pending harassment and discrimination complaint brought against him by staff from his former district—called some of my colleagues and me to his office immediately after the Williams Complaint was filed and berated us for not having come to him for help first and for being overly litigious.
The heat was finally fixed, I later took a different position in the district, and then the administration paid to fly me—my site’s most active union rep—to a charter-sponsored workshop in Philadelphia. While I was in the air, the site’s director called everyone in my job class into a room and “consolidated” all of our positions. Depending on our tenure status, we could reapply, be transferred, or be let go. This was all in the name of budget efficiency, but the superintendent at the helm had negotiated a substantial salary increase for his position before taking the job, and we had multiple three-figure-an-hour consultants buzzing around our building, commenting on what everyone was doing but contributing nothing to our work in the trenches. Behind the scenes, we collaborated with parents, organized an e-mail and phone campaign to the school board, involved the press, and assembled a long list of people to speak publicly against the cuts. We got our jobs back, and I spent the first week of summer sick in the aftermath of so much stress and adrenaline. A year later, like about three-quarters of special ed staff in the district, I resigned before exceeding five years of service.
Since then, OUSD has continued to organize and reorganize management structures, change job titles, transfer beloved principals away from the sites with which they’ve established longstanding relationships, increase class sizes and caseloads, refuse meaningful pay raises for teachers, and further destabilize the lives of nearly 40,000 students every year.
My former colleagues organize rummage sales to pay for supplemental enrichment activities in lieu of axed electives—or just to make sure there is enough paper to make copies for the rest of the year without dipping into their own modest salaries. Somewhere along the line, leadership has lost sight of the fact that public funding for education should go toward maximizing student learning and safety—including by retaining experienced teachers—not toward private partnerships, expensive and unnecessary private consultants, or administrative bloat.
The one dedicated OUSD beat reporter during my tenure took a different job, and local news reporting has concurrently been just as gutted as public education. Thus a former teacher is writing this piece because not a single newspaper has. A cynic might point to conspiracy: Large philanthropic organizations simultaneously fund non-unionized charter schools and run their own PR campaigns through the national media.
Whether the problem lies in ineptitude or an orchestrated takedown, one thing is certain: No one will tell public schools’ story unless the public tells the story.
(c) 2016 Teresa K. Miller