Central Unified teachers union leader steps down

The Fresno BeeNovember 10, 2012 

The president of Central Unified School District's teachers union is resigning, saying members are upset with her for signing the district's Race to the Top application for a $27.5 million federal grant.

Gaye Lewis says she also plans to retire after a 23-year teaching career.

"It went south very fast," said Lewis, who signed the application last week, even though nearly four out of five members of the Central Unified Teachers Association opposed it.

Lewis' decision to step down comes a week after Superintendent Michael Berg and school board trustees announced that Central Unified had hit the deadline to file the application with the U.S. Department of Education. The applications require teachers unions to sign off, which has prevented other districts from applying and pushed Fresno Unified's application to the 11th hour.

Berg said Friday that Lewis' resignation won't affect the district's application.

"Gaye has done a good job as a teacher and as a messenger for the union. I wish her well," Berg said.

Trustee Terry Cox said Lewis "has always worked hard for the kids and for the union. It's sad to hear she has resigned."

Central Unified's application seeks money to add counselors and electives for students, coaches and instructional aides for teachers, and increased technology such as laptops for students and teachers, Berg said.

In an interview Thursday night, Lewis sounded upbeat, saying: "I'm OK with taking the hit."

Lewis said she knew teachers were upset with her because on Oct. 3 the union's membership voted overwhelmingly against the application.

She voiced those concerns at last Friday's news conference.

She said members didn't like the application because it ties teacher evaluations to student performance. She also said teachers feared the federal government would force unfunded mandates on teachers.

Berg, however, said the district worked closely with the union to develop language to address the teachers' concerns. And Lewis said Berg and the school board promised to give teachers the right to pull out of the deal if the district received the grant. "This way we don't feel trapped and they don't feel trapped," Lewis told reporters then.

Thursday evening, she said she signed the application to help the union, which is in contract negotiations with the district. A key issue is health benefits for retirees. In exchange for signing the application, Lewis said, the district promised to resolve the health benefits issue, but other issues are still pending.

"I did what I believed was right," she said.

Lewis, who has led the union for 21/2 years, said she plans to retire Nov. 23, the same day she leaves as union president. She will be replaced by union vice president Laura Bolton.

Bolton said Lewis' decision to step down "is the right thing to do."

The Race to the Top application divided teachers, but Lewis' resignation has solidified the union during contract negotiations, which are the union's top priority now, Bolton said. "Her resignation sends a clear message that we have banded together," Bolton said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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