Fresno teachers union, district to meet on grant

Deadline to apply for $37.3 million is Friday.

The Fresno BeeOctober 31, 2012 

The Fresno Teachers Association has agreed to meet with school district officials this morning to discuss signing a $37.3 million federal education grant application.

But time is short for negotiations: The deadline to submit the Race to the Top application for early education is Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

The district needs the FTA president's signature before it can submit the application to the U.S. Department of Education. The union has been reluctant to sign on over concerns about how teachers will be evaluated.

Click here to read Fresno Unified's draft Race to the Top grant application. See pages 123-127 for details of the teacher evaluation process.

The union has faced mounting pressure -- from the mayor, business leaders and, on Wednesday, from clergy -- to sign the document. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, FTA President Eva Ruiz said.

"The community has painted the teachers association in a light of not wanting to cooperate and that's not at all where the teachers are coming from," she said.

District officials have said they hoped that the extended application deadline, which was shifted from Tuesday because Hurricane Sandy shuttered East Coast offices, would give them time to iron out differences with the union.

On Wednesday, Jamilah Fraser, the district's chief information officer, said, "We are here in a partnership with the Fresno Teachers Association, and we will be to the very last second."

But much work remains before the union could agree to sign the application, Ruiz said.

"We're not there yet," she said. "This is up to the executive board and we will see what comes out of that meeting with them."

The union "does not discount the concern and the many community people who are now coming forward to express their concerns, but this leadership of the Fresno Teachers Association was elected by the teachers of Fresno Unified, and our constituents are the teachers," she said. Ruiz said she has had only two emails, out of too many to count, and no phone calls from teachers in support of the application.

However, a variety of government, business and religious leaders have urged the FTA to support the application, including Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Fresno Housing Authority CEO Preston Prince, Deborah J. Nankivell, chief executive officer of the Fresno Business Council, Paul Binion, pastor of Westside Church of God, and Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church.

The teacher union leadership has expressed concern about a portion of the application that includes student performance in teacher evaluations. "It's creating a new system, a new way of evaluating with test scores," Ruiz said.

Test scores would be only part of teacher evaluations, Fraser said. And the district and FTA would collaborate on establishing the standards for teacher evaluations, she said.

According to the grant application, the evaluation system would include "multiple sources and types of information to evaluate teachers, including observations of teacher practice, measurements of student learning, and evidence of professional contributions."

Across the state, teacher organizations have withheld support for Race to the Top applications, with the biggest sticking point being teacher evaluations.

Fresno County Superintendent Larry Powell, who issued a statement Tuesday encouraging FTA to sign off on the grant, said he understands that judging teachers by student test scores can be of great concern to teachers.

But some teacher factions have overcome those concerns to sign off on Race to the Top grant applications, Powell said. Sanger Unified, for example, has submitted an application for funds to improve math instruction in grades four to eight.

Fresno Unified proposes using its grant money to improve literacy in pre-kindergarten through third grade classes by teaching students in smaller groups and giving them tablet computers.

The key to getting teacher buy-in on an application is trust between the district and the teachers' union, Powell said.

Sanger Superintendent Marc Johnson said the district and the Sanger Unified Teachers Association have a good relationship, but getting teachers' support required a face-to-face meeting with union leaders and a letter of assurances about teacher evaluations.

The district vowed to work with teachers to decide "what does student growth look like, and how does that apply to an evaluation of a teacher," he said.

But issues other than test scores tied to teacher evaluations could derail Fresno's application, Ruiz said.

Without giving specifics, she said: "There's just many different things throughout the whole grant that would change working conditions of the teachers."

The 235-page document that union leaders received Friday also contained new information that had to be assessed: "There definitely were some surprises in it," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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