By Ken Epstein
District had promised not to retaliate against employees protesting school closures
The Oakland teachers’ union has accused the Oakland Unified School District of retaliating against teacher activists, including firing two substitute teachers, who have protested school closings. The union is planning litigation against the district.
“The Oakland Education Association (OEA) demands an immediate halt to retaliatory actions undertaken by the Oakland Unified School District against activists working to keep Parker School and other neighborhood schools open,” according to a statement sent to the Oakland Post by teachers’ union President Keith Brown.
“Specifically, OUSD must immediately rescind the termination of substitute teachers June Nelson and Craig Gordon, rescind the reprimand of teacher Denise Huffstutler, and renew the contract-for-services of Paloma Collier,” the O.E.A. statement said.
While the district does not discuss individual personnel matters, the Post asked for a response from OUSD on the issue of retaliation against employees for opposing school closings.
“OUSD does not comment on personnel matters,” replied OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki.
The district appears to be taking actions against teacher activists despite a letter sent to several school employees on Feb. 11 by OUSD Chief Governance Officer Joshua Daniels pledging not to “not retaliate against any OUSD employee involved in protesting school closures … or supporting those who are involved in such protests.”
Nelson, one of the affected teachers, taught special education at Lockwood Elementary last year and was hired as a substitute teacher in Oakland for the current school year. On her second day of teaching, she received an email saying, “We onboarded you mistakenly. You are not eligible for future employment with OUSD.”
Nelson had coordinated the educational program at Parker Community School last summer, which was run by parents, OUSD educators and others occupying Parker to provide services in the East Oakland neighborhood, according to a press statement from teacher activists.
Gordon, an OUSD teacher for 24 years and a substitute teacher for eight years, discovered at the beginning of the school year that he was unable to access the online substitute system to apply for work.
“I emailed the head of Human Resources and asked if something had changed with my employment,” he said in an interview with Oakland Voices. “I was told a letter had been sent notifying me that my employment was hereby terminated and that I was also precluded from ever being employed in OUSD again and, perhaps ironically, thanking me for my service.”
He said he believes he was fired due to his public activities and outspokenness. He recently had supported those who had protested the closure of Parker School.
Substitutes are considered “at will employees,” who can be fired without reason.
Educator Pamela Collier, an opponent of school closings, had been a garden educator for five years. She learned in July that her contract would not be honored for the 2022-23 school year as she was about to start her sixth year in the garden at Markham Elementary in East Oakland.
Teacher activist Denise Huffstutler was an instructional coach at Parker with over 20 years in education. During the summer, she received a letter of reprimand for failing to return her keys at the end of the year “even though she had reported her keys as missing,” according to a press statement.
“Huffstutler is still part of an ongoing case to clear her record and could face possible termination despite her tenure status,” the press statement said.
The teachers’ union pledged to continue the fight against school closures and to take legal action to defend teachers who have been fired or threatened for their activism: “We stand in absolute solidarity with the demands of the Parker community and all school communities targeted for closure,” said the union statement.
“The decision to abruptly close schools like Parker which serve majority Black and Brown students has thrown Oakland Unified into unnecessary disarray, caused tremendous trauma for students, families, and staff, and resulted in an ever-expanding universe of litigation … we are planning litigation to challenge these illegal actions.”
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