Mass of protesters in the street, carrying banners supporting Berkeley teachers
Teachers took to the streets before the Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday as contract negotiations continue. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

From a couple of blocks away, the gathering sounded like a dance party and smelled like pizza dinner.

But Berkeley teachers and their fans were singing in the streets outside the BUSD headquarters Wednesday evening in protest — of conditions for educators in Berkeley and across the state. After chomping down on pepperoni slices in between chants, they took their rally inside the School Board meeting chambers.

By now it’s a familiar scene: local teachers and staff, clad in union-red, rallying for higher wages and more support. But Wednesday’s showing of 300 or so was the largest in Berkeley in recent memory, and educators took on more urgent tones as they presented their demands for a 12% raise over two years and caseload caps for special-education teachers.

Later that evening, board members voted to pursue a March primary ballot measure that would tax residents to raise funds for teacher compensation. Officials called it a necessary response to a problem they agree is pressing.

For the first time since 2004, according to the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the union started a school year out of contract — and the district failed to fill numerous teaching jobs in time for the first day.

Berkeley teachers, who started the school year out of contract, are singing in the streets before #busdmtg— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) September 19, 2019

Amid strikes across the state and nation, Berkeley teachers have long sounded the alarm about relatively low wages for the region and the unaffordable local housing landscape. Recent data shared by the district confirmed that Berkeley teacher pay falls below the regional average, according to School Services of California.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, King Middle School Principal Janet Levenson told officials that she’s never experienced this much trouble hiring for once-coveted jobs. She’s started showing candidates the salary schedules before taking the time to interview them, knowing many will walk away immediately, she said.

Math teacher Masha Albrecht sends a musical message. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

First-year teacher Robert Taylor told Berkeleyside he grew up down the street from the district building, and still lives with his family.

“I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Berkeley if my parents weren’t here,” he said at the rally, his voice nearly drowned out by a brass band comprised of his colleagues. “There’s a disincentive to become a teacher — you top out at an income tech workers make on day one.”

Teachers also tried to highlight what they say are poor conditions for special-education teachers in Berkeley.

BUSD is a “full inclusion” district, meaning students with disabilities and high needs aren’t separated into their own classes. Instead, at the elementary school level, there are two special-education teachers per site, who have caseloads of students who are enrolled most of the day in the general classes.

“In Berkeley, we’ve really put our minds around how to support all our students,” said Hillary Trainor, a Washington Elementary special-education teacher working with the highest-needs kids. “But if we’re not given resources to make full inclusion work, we’re not supporting our students.”

Since Washington is one of the bigger schools, Trainor has had up to 17 children in her caseload at a time. In a school with “special day classes” for students with disabilities, there would be only 8-12 together with one teacher, she said.

“Berkeley requires too much of its special-education teachers, and that affects kids,” said Julia Hart. The former BUSD special-education teacher left the district last year to work as a school psychologist in Antioch. She came back to Berkeley Wednesday just to support her old coworkers.

“I think I was in a toxic-stress situation,” she told Berkeleyside at the rally. “I got my life back.”

Unfilled teacher positions increased dramatically this year. Chart: BUSD

Berkeley school officials have often told teachers they want to pay them more, but can’t afford to meet their demands on their own.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent Brent Stephens rattled off a “quick historical lesson,” attributing the current predicament to Proposition 13, the California tax law that slashed funding for education, and the trajectory of state support since then. The ballot measure introducing a new tax for compensation is an attractive alternative, he said.

Berkeley voters have already taxed themselves heavily to support the public schools. But Berkeley still falls short in some funding areas, in part because the district’s changing demographics make it ineligible for state funds dedicated to vulnerable students.

“We’re not just bottom in the region for teacher salaries, we’re bottom in the state for per-pupil funding,” said board member Julie Sinai on Wednesday. “It’s up to us as a community to again and again and again raise money for our schools.”

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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,...