Protesters in red march in a street. Some are wearing masks or holding signs
Around 150 teachers and staff march down University Avenue on Monday, en route to rally outside the district headquarters. Photo: Sam Matsumoto

Dozens of Berkeley High educators “sicked out” of work Monday to pressure the school district to meet union demands. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers says a contract agreement was finally reached later that night.

During the one-day “wildcat strike,” unauthorized by union leadership, the high school was down 128 teachers, 23 special-education aides and four safety officers, according to Berkeley Unified. Those figures encompass the normal daily absences — illnesses and planned vacations — but, for context, there are typically fewer than 30 teachers out at a time.

A huge number of students — 2,468 out of 3,155 — were also absent during the “sickout” (teachers called in “sick”).

“While some students did meet with teachers who were present, there were no regular classes yesterday and students were gathered into three main spaces: [the College and Career Center], the library, and the Jacket Gym,” said BUSD spokeswoman Trish McDermott in an email Tuesday.

Meanwhile, striking staff were marching through hazy air, wearing union-red and breathing masks, to protest outside Berkeley High and the district headquarters. The teachers have been working on an expired contract all fall, and have asked for raises and more support for special education. BUSD compensates its teachers $8,000 less on average than comparable districts, according to data from School Services of California. Teachers say that they can’t live comfortably and that the district can’t attract top job candidates.

“Berkeley has long been a prize district to work for, with a reputation for great education, but this year, Berkeley High’s principal struggled to fill positions, especially in special education, affecting our most vulnerable students,” history teacher Alice Bynum said in a speech at Monday’s rally, which was shared with Berkeleyside. “This is a drastic and recent change.”

A few protesters - one wears a superhero costume and holds a sign that says "even superheroes couldn't live like this"
Teachers and staff “sicked out” of work Monday to put pressure on the district to approve a favorable contract. Photo: Matt Carton
Teachers and staff “sicked out” of work Monday to put pressure on the district to approve a favorable contract. Photo: Matt Carton

The union has also asked for caps on caseloads for special-education teachers. Berkeley is a “full inclusion” district, meaning almost all its students learn together in the same classrooms so everyone has access to the same education. The union says this system requires more resources and staff to be successful.

District leaders say they’re sympathetic to teachers’ plights, but can’t scrape together the cash to pay them much more after decades of underfunding by the state. They want to ask voters to approve a new parcel tax in 2020, saying it could fund large raises for employees next year.

The district hadn’t responded to request for comment on Monday’s wildcat strike by publication time.

Bynum’s speech closed out the morning rally outside 2020 Bonar St. That building is where the union and district have spent hours negotiating for the past several months.

BFT President Matt Meyer told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that the sides reached an agreement at Monday’s session, the final one scheduled. He said he couldn’t share the terms yet.

“The details are going to come out at our membership meeting tomorrow,” Meyer said. Then the union has two weeks to ratify the agreement before it comes before the School Board for approval.

Protesters - many wearing masks
Teachers and staff rally, masks and all, outside the Berkeley Unified headquarters at 2020 Bonar St. on Monday. Photo: Alice Bynum

Meyer, a former Berkeley High teacher who became BFT’s president this summer, said he was “very happy” with the outcome.

Some teachers have not always seen eye-to-eye with union leadership. Meyer has emphasized that the Berkeley High strike was “self-organized,” saying the state has strict rules and timelines for authorized strikes.

The teachers who organized Monday’s sickout confined the strike to Berkeley High, because they said elementary and middle school families might be less prepared to handle mass adult absences at their schools. Some BHS teachers participated in a similar but much smaller sickout the previous week too.

On the Friday before the sickout, BHS Principal Erin Schweng sent a message to students telling them they were “very welcome to come to school, but it will not be a regular day.” Attendance would be taken, she wrote, but parents could excuse absences, per usual.

Schweng and Superintendent Brent Stephens co-wrote another message to families that day, saying, “We know you count on our schools to provide a safe learning environment, and our students need school activities, as well as healthy meals and other supports. We are making progress at the table in our contract negotiations with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and are hopeful about reaching an agreement.” They asked parents to fill out a brief survey indicating whether their children planned to come to school during the sickout.

Monday turned out to be a tumultuous day for the rest of the district too.

John Muir Elementary lost its power in the PG&E shutoff, and all outdoor activities were canceled throughout the district because of the poor air quality.

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,...