Fresno teachers, board finalize contract after year of talks

The Fresno BeeJune 18, 2014 

After months of frayed nerves on both sides -- and the prospect of a teacher strike brewing -- the battle over Fresno teachers' employment contract finally came to a close Wednesday evening.

Fresno Unified contract talks were hard-fought for nearly a year, with both sides fighting over tempestuous issues including salary and benefits and teachers' responsibilities during the school day.

But it was all over in less than a minute during Wednesday's school board meeting, when trustees quickly voted unanimously to approve an agreement with the Fresno Teachers Association union, who voted overwhelmingly to pass the same plan last week.

FTA President Eva Ruiz along with her union colleagues rose from their seats after the vote, clapping and smiling along with the board members.

"This is it," she said. "The process was long, we worked hard, but we are pleased with the outcome of this contract and we look forward to working with the district."

For the last several board meetings, Ruiz and hundreds of teachers could be found outside the board's hall, armed with drums and megaphones to rally for higher pay and benefits. The familiar scene was absent from Wednesday's meeting, with everything all but said and done before the board's vote.

Superintendent Michael Hanson said he wasn't surprised it took so long to strike a deal, but said this year's talks were "par for the course, given what was at stake, the size of the contract and the commitments the district was making."

The new contract includes a 2.7% retroactive raise for the 2013-14 school year, plus a 3.5% pay increase for the 2014-15 school year. Hanson said the retroactive increase will pump $14 million into Fresno's economy once the checks are cut.

Teachers will also get $1,025 more each year toward their health plans, raising the district's yearly contribution from $13,649 to $14,647. The deal also doubles extra pay for middle and high school after-school athletics and academic coaches, and triples the rate for elementary coaches.

Also part of the plan: 10 schools will extend the class day by 30 minutes next year, with an additional 20 schools the following year. Ten more will lengthen the class day in 2016-17.

In other business, the board voted 6-1 with Trustee Carol Mills casting the lone no-vote, to allow students found with head lice to stay in class until the end of the school day. The new policy also makes it optional for school principals to notify parents about cases of head lice.

"To me, it doesn't seem to be a good policy because head lice is quite contagious," Mills said before the vote.

District officials said the policy simply codifies the practices schools already use. School nurses are on hand to check students suspected of lice, and teachers are expected to keep infected students from having direct contact with their peers, said Diane Torna, the district's health services director.

The district has also hired an administrative and media relations analyst from the Tulare County Administrative Office, who will take over for the district's longtime spokeswoman Susan Bedi on July 1. Bedi retired.

Jed Chernabaeff, 33, is leaving his position after nearly seven years in the county office. He previously worked at the Visalia Times-Delta and graduated from Fresno State with a degree in mass communication and journalism.

Chernabaeff lives in Fresno and said finding a communications job closer to home made sense.

"It has been both an honor and privilege to serve the public in Tulare County for more than six years," he said. "However, due to my new, growing family, I thought it was important to earn a communications position closer to home."

Board trustees also said goodbye to two familiar faces, wishing chief academic officer Michael Neece and Brenda Emerson, associate director for the Fresno Teachers Association, a teary farewell. Two of Neece's former colleagues spoke on his behalf, while Emerson's husband who is also an FTA employee, got choked up when asked to come to the mic. Neece is retiring and Emerson is taking a new position in Broward, Fla.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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