Even though it was a rainy Wednesday evening, students, teachers and parents waited in a long line outside the Lovonya DeJean Middle School auditorium to grab a yellow T-shirt. Inside, some found a seat, others congregated in smaller groups toward the back of the room, and many moved to the sides. Marcus Walton, the district’s communications director, urged those standing to move into the overflow room until it was their time to speak. It was hard to tell whether or not anyone listened, though: The room remained just as crowded, as this wasn’t the typical school board gathering.
The mission of the crowd — wearing the yellow T-shirts with “No Rocketship” emblazoned on the front and back — was three-fold: get a 14 percent salary increase for teachers, reduce class sizes and stop the development of a Rocketship Charter School in San Pablo.
United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) is currently in negotiations with the West Contra Costa Unified School District school board for said salary raise and smaller class sizes. The proposal comes after the union called for an increase in teacher retention rates.
Its Teacher Retention Initiative, which was published in July, compiled data from 40 exit surveys and eight exit interviews by teachers who left the district this past spring. The report revealed that 69 percent of teachers would have stayed if they had been offered a higher salary.
Their research also indicates that the district employs 250 new teachers every year, with an average turnover rate of 15 percent. Though this is aligned with the national average (16 percent), Priya Sembi, area 2 representative of UTR and teacher at Helms Middle School, said this turnover rate not only affects the students in the classroom, but also the community as a whole.
“Having someone that stays at your site for a long enough period of time that you get their siblings makes a big difference,” she said. “You become a community member.”
At the beginning of the 2017 school year, Helms Middle School was short one math teacher. This position did not get filled for two months, and classes had to be taught by a substitute teacher, who did not have the necessary qualifications, according to Sembi.
“It’s already bad enough they [students] live in Richmond and have other factors against them. On top of that, it’s almost like we’re depriving them of a quality education,” she said.
At the meeting, Coleen Balentine, a special education teacher in the district, wore the yellow shirt (to oppose Rocketship) and a blue skirt (to support the salary increase). She spoke of how still, at age 43, she lives with her mother, because she cannot afford to live on her own.
With more than 30 speakers in line for public comment, Balentine only had one minute to make her remarks. She was simple and to the point: “As my workload has increased, my salary has not. As expectations have increased, my salary has not. Please fix this,” she said, the crowd cheering.
According to the UTR report, teachers in the district make $10,000 less than the average school district in California, and $7,500 less than at Mt. Diablo Unified, the closest nearby district. The average salary for the Mt. Diablo district was $70,932 in the 2015-16 school year, according to Ed Data, a partnership between the California Department of Education and EdSource. For WWCUSD, average teacher salary was $63,252 that same year.
The 14 percent increase that the union presented directly correlates to the increase in housing prices in Contra Costa County.
Jacob Gran is a special education teacher at Richmond High School and member of the bargaining team for UTR. He wants the 14 percent increase not just because of the institutional memory that is lacking due to the high turnover, but also because higher wages will create a more competitive district.
“If we want to really retain or recruit high quality educators … it’s only fair that our educators have the appropriate salaries and resources to stay in the Bay Area,” he said.
The school board has honed in on improving student performance and outcomes through after-school programs and activities. But Gran argues spending money on those programs won’t have the intended effect. “The core of it all is teachers,” he said.
The most recent round of negotiations began at the beginning of October. Since it is a formal process between the two parties, no one in the union was able to speak on the state of the talks.
This proposal wasn’t the only focus of the November 15 rally. While teachers and educators were there to support the pay increase and the UTR bargaining team, they were also there to strongly oppose the Rocketship School petition.
Rocketship Public Schools is a nonprofit network of elementary charters. Currently, it has locations in several districts in the Bay Area, Nashville, Milwaukee and Tennessee. Rocketship was recently approved to develop a new site in Antioch, and is now petitioning for one in San Pablo.
As Marie Gil, Bay Area regional director of Rocketship Public Schools, walked up to the podium, the auditorium was silent, save for the click of her heels on the floor. She hadn’t gotten through two sentences when someone from the crowd yelled out, “Get out of our neighborhood!”
Then, the audience erupted in a chant — “No Rocketship!” it yelled in unison. People stood up and held signs into the air, an unwelcoming backdrop for Gil’s remarks. Eventually, school board member Valerie Cuevas prompted them to stop. But the signs remained raised high.
“Schools for people not profit,” one read.
“Corporate charters are fake public schools,” with money signs instead of the letter ‘s.’
“Computers are not teachers,” read another, in reference to the schools’ tech-heavy approach.
Gil’s remarks highlighted the achievements of Rocketship students. According to the petition submitted to the school board by Rocketship, 54 percent and 44 percent of students either met or exceeded state standards in math and English, respectively.
The petition compares these numbers to the 2015-16 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) results for WCCUSD. During that time, 25 percent of students in elementary schools in the district met the standard in English, and 17 percent in math.
According to this year’s data, and Richmond Confidential’s own analysis, 34 percent of students in WCCUSD met the standard in math, and 24 percent in English.
This was Gil’s main argument for a new Rocketship School in San Pablo. But many residents, including its mayor, Cecilia Valdez, do not support the school.
Valdez said that although the city had not taken an official stance on the issue, her “heart was with local schools, and local teachers.”
Union president Demetrio Gonzalez said a new charter schools could derail their petition for a wage increase.
“The more charter petitions that we’re getting, the more we need to provide spaces, and the more it takes away from the general funding,” he said.
No action was taken on the Rocketship petition at the meeting. But the charter school has made it clear that if the district denies their petition, they will appeal the decision at the county and the state level.
As for the salary negotiations, Gonzalez said they have been meeting with the school board to discuss next steps. Though he could share the details of the meetings, him and other union members believe the board sees value in their claims.
“The answer is not to open new schools and close the ones that already exist,” he said. “That just breaks the community.”