Berkeley teachers, pictured here at a rally earlier this year, are headed to Sacramento this week with educators from across the state. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Eight buses carrying Berkeley teachers, staff and supporters will hit the road Wednesday, headed toward Sacramento to put pressure on politicos.

Once they arrive in the capital city, educators will join up with colleagues from across California to demand support for legislation that would bring in more money for public education and tighten regulations on charter schools.

“We’re being proactive,” said Washington Elementary teacher Janine Waddell, in an email. “Our district has been making cuts and now it’s time to urge the state for more funding so that our schools can serve all of our students.”

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), said attempts to better support schools have not been sufficient — “and we see that in a rash of strikes across the state.”

Both of the state’s umbrella teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, are linking up to organize Wednesday’s “Day of Action,” an unusual collaboration, Campbell said.

Participants have a busy day planned, starting with marches to a community college chancellor’s office and the California Charter School Association building, and concluding with rallies and live music at the Capitol. CTA always lobbies legislators one day each spring, and Wednesday’s agenda is an expansion on the typical slate of private meetings, Campbell said.

“I buy my own paper, pencils and calculators for my classroom.”

With a loosely estimated 500 people leaving Berkeley for the activities, many classrooms throughout the city will be left without teachers Wednesday.

District leaders have made the remarkable decision to encourage parents to keep their kids at home if they can.

Some high school students told Berkeleyside they are planning to heed the administration’s request.

“At many of our larger schools, we believe a majority of teachers could be absent,” said Berkeley Unified spokesman Charles Burress, in an email. He said there are likely not enough substitutes to replace all of those teachers, especially because nearby districts will be in similar situations.

Malcolm X teachers and families held one of many “Red for Ed” walk-ins before school in January. Photo: Lila Wilkinson
Malcolm X teachers and families held one of many “Red for Ed” walk-ins before school in January. Photo: Lila Wilkinson

“We are doing our utmost to come up with alternative plans that can provide the safe space our students need, calling in substitutes, sending district staff out to sites, and creating group activities,” Burress said. “This is a significant challenge, particularly at our larger sites.”

However, the cause drawing educators to Sacramento is one both top district executives and their lowest-paid employees can get behind.

Both groups blame decades of underfunding for the problems plaguing most public school districts in the state. California has consistently ranked in the bottom third nationally in per-pupil funding.

Some Berkeley School Board members, who have a meeting later Wednesday night, are planning to participate in the Sacramento protests.

“We are joining to show that School Board members agree with our teachers on the need to communicate loudly that schools need fair and equitable funding,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler in an email “Education has to be at the top of the list of what CA funds.”

The district has shortened the high school and middle school schedules Wednesday so classes end early at 2 p.m., giving teachers time to rush to Sacramento for an early evening rally. (Two of the eight buses BFT has rented are leaving then, but most are going in the morning). BUSD also allowed teachers to use personal leave for the event, so substitutes could be requested in advance, Campbell said.

“We strongly support the call for more state funding for public education, and at the same time, we cannot close our schools and leave many students and families without options,” said Superintendent Donald Evans in an email to families.

Campbell said she “understands the concern” about so many staff leaving, but said, “I’m confident that sites are going to be able to keep students safe. A significant portion of members are staying behind. Nobody likes not being at work. Nobody’s taking this lightly.”

Those traveling to Sacramento are promoting a 2020 ballot initiative that would reform Proposition 13, the 1978 law that capped property taxes, significantly scaling back revenue that goes to local governments and schools. The California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act would not affect residential properties, but it would change the law so corporate owners get their properties reassessed regularly, generating higher taxes.

The teachers unions are also supporting a set of bills that would impose strict limits on charter schools. Assembly bills 1505, 1506 and 1507 would, respectively, permit the denial of new charter school petitions because of negative financial or academic impacts to district schools, cap the number of charter schools at those in existence in January 2020, and prohibit charter schools from opening sites outside of their districts. They’re also advocating for Senate Bill 756, which would put a moratorium on new charter schools.

Woman in teachers union shirt speaks at a podium. Several people are standing behind her, some holding signs that say "Keep teachers in Berkeley."
Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, kicks off union negotiations at a School Board meeting in March. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When charter schools were first dreamed up, “the idea originally was not to set up an ungovernable sector of schools, but that’s what happened,” Campbell said. The bills “bring some basic accountability to these public dollars.”

Some of her own members work for a charter school — at REALM, in Berkeley. When School Board members come back from Sacramento on Wednesday, they’ll be voting on whether to allow that struggling school to merge with an out-of-town online charter school chain.

Some supporters of REALM and charter schools in general say their programs offer important alternatives to students who aren’t served well by traditional public institutions. 

Berkeley teachers asking for 12% raise over two years

Berkeley Unified leaders are eager to support calls for more state funding, saying the unrelenting pressure from rising pension contributions and health care costs puts them in an impossible position when their employees ask for higher wages.

According to recent research by Pivot Learning, an Oakland nonprofit that provides technical assistance to school districts, in collaboration with the California School Boards Association, employee benefits made up 18.9% of the BUSD’s budget in 2010-11, and increased to 22.3% in 2019-20.

Superintendent: “We cannot close our schools and leave many students and families without options.”

But local educators say their bosses need to take responsibility for their wellbeing.

BFT is currently in contract negotiations with the district, and has asked for a 12% raise over the next two years. That figure represents a significant boost from the teachers’ last contract, which gave them a 1% raise and 1% bonus. Classified staff have been in protracted negotiations, unhappy with the 1% bonus being offered to them.

But strikes across the state and country have brought new attention to teachers and the challenges they face as housing prices and the cost of living climb. The Oakland Education Association also asked for a 12% raise — over three years, not two, however — and was given 11% after a weeklong strike earlier this year.

Berkeley teachers are also asking for caseload caps for special education teachers. The two sides have reached agreements on some topics, including changes to the school calendar next year, according to the union.

Campbell said she empathizes with the district’s position: “Negotiations are acutely challenging because of lack of state funding.” The union has launched a “Keep Teachers in Berkeley” campaign, promoting the stories of the many educators who are commuting long distances, squeezing into small apartments, making plans to leave the district or the profession — and even reportedly living in a hammock.

Kinjal Shah, who teaches math and computer science at Willard Middle School, said she’s trekking to Sacramento because “I want to have all the resources that we need to teach our students.”

Even with a supportive administration and some funding from the school and PTA, often “I buy my own paper, pencils and calculators for my classroom,” she said. “The average teacher can’t do that.”

This story was updated after publication to include some additional information. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...