The first day of school was Aug. 18 in the San Francisco Unified School District, but a group of teachers started the day with a press conference announcing the possibility that they could soon go on strike.
The teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, announced the results of a strike authorization vote held the previous Thursday. The vote, which was the first of two required to authorize a strike, resulted with an overwhelming "yes" with 99.3 percent of teachers saying they would take that step if necessary.
UESF President Dennis Kelly noted that 2,251 teachers had voted, and all but 16 were in favor of authorizing the union to go on strike if contract negotiations with the school district do not result in an acceptable settlement. "It's pretty unequivocal," noted UESF spokesperson Matthew Hardy, "and it demonstrates the need for teachers to have a wage that allows them to live in San Francisco.
On Aug. 14, teachers streamed onto the grounds at George Washington High School to cast ballots for the first strike authorization vote. Among them was Kelly Lehman, a first grade teacher at Mira Loma Elementary, who said she'd recently been forced to leave her longtime Mission District residence under threat of eviction.
"I am one of those people who has been 'Googled' out of the city," she said. "I used to be able to afford the city."
Since she relocated in Marin County, Lehman said her commute has gone from 10 to 40 minutes each way. "It means either less time with my family, or less time with my class," she noted, adding that she ended up purchasing a car and now drives to work.
Public school teachers' contract ended June 30, but contract negotiations began months earlier, in February. In June, the negotiations went into impasse, which means the union and district were unable to meet without the presence of a mediator. If mediated negotiations now underway don't result in a settlement, the process would move to fact finding, where parties on either side of the bargaining table would make presentations to a neutral party, who would in turn prepare a report and make recommendations. If that still doesn't result in an agreement, the district could impose its last and best contract offer and the union could opt to go on strike, provided it wins approval in a second strike vote.
Hardy said it would likely take weeks before a final outcome is determined, but he stressed that "the goal is to get a settlement."
While there are several issues of contention, the major point of disagreement comes down to teachers' salaries. Teachers have demanded a 21 percent pay raise over three years, saying that amount is necessary for educators to be able to provide for themselves in San Francisco. But the district, which has made an offer that would raise pay by 8.5 percent instead, maintained in a statement that it "has not received increases in revenue sufficient to raise salaries enough to keep up with the high cost of living in San Francisco."
Ken Tray, a UESF organizer and longtime social studies teacher at SFUSD, said he was alarmed by the trend of schoolteachers being forced out of the community. "Today there are many, many teachers facing eviction," he said. "One of my oldest teacher friends, who was voted best teacher at Galileo High School and then at Lowell High School, is leaving San Francisco because he is losing his apartment. So that is a loss not only to him and his wife, but it's a loss to his community. What kind of community drives its...best teachers out of town? What about the soul of San Francisco?"