By Ashley McBride
Oakland school teachers, nurses, counselors and their supporters rose early Thursday to protest in the first day of a strike for higher pay, smaller class sizes and more support for students.
As the sun came up, dozens of people stood in the chilly morning air, waiting to join the picket line outside of the Oakland Unified School District's offices in downtown Oakland. Thousands were expected to rally over the course of the day.
Meanwhile, schools, libraries and rec centers in Oakland were prepping to open their doors to thousands of displaced students.
Erica Garber, an Oakland parent, joined the picket line Thursday morning at Manzanita Community School with her 5-year-old son, a student in transitional kindergarten at the school, and her father, a former teacher. Garber said she agreed with teachers' demands for more support and higher wages, both of which have been scaled back at her son's school.
"As a parent, I want to teach my son to be an active participant in our society," Garber said. "The cutbacks at my son's school have been dramatic. There's no school nurse, and they're talking about cutting the librarian."
Manzanita, a dual-language elementary school of about 400 students, had only a handful of children trickle inside past the picket line of dozens of teachers and families.
Standing in front of the school, Oakland Educational Association President Keith Brown addressed the crowd, along with California Teachers Association President Eric Heinz and Manzanita teacher Estefania Ramos. All three addressed the district's budget issues and teachers' poor working conditions, drawing boisterous responses.
Brown called out, "When we strike," and the crowd shouted back, "We win!"
Rich Bonzo, who works as a substitute teacher and had been assigned to cover classes at Castlemont High School this week, instead joined the walkout Thursday.
"I'm seeing it through to the end," he said, adding that he wouldn't take on any more work during the strike.
Members of local truck drivers' and firefighters' unions joined the teachers outside the district offices Thursday morning to show support.
The Oakland Education Association, whose teachers have been working on a contract that expired two years ago, rejected the school district's latest proposal, which included a 7 percent increase in wages over three years.
Teachers have demanded a 12 percent raise, along with the hiring of more counselors and nurses, as well as promises to keep schools open in the district. Oakland Unified officials have said the district is already financially stretched due to dwindling enrollment.
Thursday's action is the first strike in Oakland since 2010, when teachers went on a one-day strike.
Greg Kalkanis, who has been teaching Spanish at McClymonds High School in West Oakland since the start of the school year as a substitute teacher, said he joined Thursday's strike because his school hasn't been able to fill the position.
The problem: He doesn't speak Spanish.
"They're learning from someone not qualified to teach Spanish," Kalkanis said. "These kids are being deprived of an education. We're unable to hire a teacher, because we don't pay well enough.
The bargaining teams for Oakland Unified and the teachers union will meet again Friday morning to try and resolve the dispute before instruction for the district's 37,000 students is disrupted any further.
If an agreement is reached, the union's 3,000 members would have to approve the deal before the strike can end. The school board would ultimately sign off on a new contract.
The strike follows similar actions across the country over the past year, as half a dozen teachers unions have demanded better working conditions.
"My hat goes off to the teachers in West Virginia, Denver, and my cousin and her colleagues in Los Angeles," Bonzo said. "It's much bigger than Oakland and California."
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