While special education support staff in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) broadly back the Oakland Education Association’s (OEA) proposed strike and its demands to increase funding for educators and students, some feel they’ll be unable to show that support by refusing to work.
“Schools have been underfunded in California since I was in high school at least,” said Kaylie Bengston, who works as a paraprofessional educator in a class at Montera Middle School. “It’s about time someone did something about it.”
Bengston was hired through Ro Health, an agency that has a contract with OUSD. She provides one on one support for a student with special needs. She’d love to not work during a strike, but due to her 17 dollars an hour salary and the Bay Area’s high cost of living, she can’t afford to miss work.
In anticipation of a likely upcoming strike, OEA has arranged for interest free loans and needs based grants for its members who are willing to serve on the picket line. But since Bengston along with other Ro Health employees are ununionized and not part of the OEA, they won’t be able to access those services.
Bengston’s financial situation is similar to many other special education support staff workers in OUSD who work multiple jobs yet can’t afford to live in Oakland as they aren’t paid a living wage. She has a second job at a fabric store and lives in a two bedroom apartment in Hayward with two roommates, one who lives in the living room.
Sarah Wilson*, who’s worked directly for OUSD as an instructional support specialist for special ed students for over a dozen years, plans to support the strike by scheduling doctor appointments she’s needed anyway during the strike’s first days. If the strike lasts more than a few days, she’ll return to work because she can’t afford to go without wages. Wilson is unionized through Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 instead of OEA so she also won’t be able to access OEA’s finical aid services.
Although Wilson grew up in Oakland, she can’t afford housing here. She’s been homeless for the last two years and alternates between staying with friends, housesitting, and sleeping in her vehicle. She makes about 23 dollars an hour which has not been enough, even with supplement income from three part time jobs, for her to find housing in her hometown.
She thinks she should be paid a lot more for her job which requires a bachelors degree, specialized skills, and in-depth knowledge and understanding of autism.
OEA 1st vice president Ismael Armendariz agrees that special ed support staff deserve higher wages. Since special education support staff are not in OEA, they will have to negotiate separately, but Armendariz thinks the teacher’s fight to secure more funding will help special ed support staff in their negotiations.
“The funding we’re fighting for is not just for classroom teachers, but for all education professionals,” said Armendariz.
OEA is encouraging special education support staff who work during the strike to stick exclusively to their job duties and not take on the duties of classroom teachers as they’re concerned with administrators pressuring support staff to perform tasks outside of their training which could put them in unsafe situations. Also, if special ed support staff replace teachers, the strike would become less strong.
Sarah Wilson plans on sticking exclusively to her small group of autistic students and is concerned for their safety. She hopes that parents keep them home if a strike occurs.
“Having my students in with the entire school population would be a disaster, and unsafe. I hope parents keep them home as I worry about the level of support that will be available to them,” said Wilson.
*Sarah Wilson is a pseudonym for this person, who prefers to remain anonymous to protect their job security.