Tensions are high at Fresno Unified, with teachers scheduled to take a vote next week on whether to strike.
“Obviously this is not something we want to see happen, but when all steps in bargaining have been exhausted, this is something that as an association we have to look at as an option,” Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice said.
While the FTA and the district are still in the negotiating process, teachers can’t yet legally strike. But a “yes” vote on Tuesday to move forward with the strike process is likely, after the union and the district have failed for more than a year to reach a deal on a contract.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson is still hopeful that it won’t come to that, though.
“Just because the vote is being taken doesn’t mean that the strike is imminent. This is serious, but it’s not imminent,” Nelson said. “There’s a reason we haven’t struck since 1977, and that’s because it’s not a good situation for kids.”
On Thursday, Fresno Unified offered a new proposal to the FTA in an effort to end the stalemate.
The district said the offer addresses several issues that have made FTA balk, including a retroactive salary increase, health care premiums protections, class-size reductions and elimination of combination classrooms at elementary schools.
The district said it remains optimistic that a resolution can be met. However, in the event FTA still approves a strike, the district is prepared to pay substitute teachers $500 a day
Here are some of the main issues that got Fresno Unified and the union to this point:
The FTA has been the most vocal about lessening student-to-teacher ratios, saying crowded classrooms are bad for everyone.
The typical Fresno Unified high school class has about 40 students, and the FTA has called for caps on class sizes, aiming for teachers to have a maximum of 30 students.
The FTA wants $25 million committed to this goal, which would be used to hire more teachers so those ratios are reduced.
“Our working conditions are tied to student learning. Class size is one of those issues that impacts our educators who are trying to meet the needs of all of our students,” Rice said. “But the district has really not responded with a counter-proposal.”
Our working conditions are tied to student learning.
Tish Rice, Fresno Teachers Association President
The latest district position includes a plan to reduce class-size ratios and guidelines for grades 7-12. It eliminates combination classes in elementary schools. And it reduces the work year for adult school teachers, the district said.
A call for stricter, more uniform discipline policies has also been a top priority for FTA, with teachers reporting that the district’s restorative justice efforts have led to unruly – and sometimes violent – classrooms.
“We recognize there’s a need to determine what the interventions are, and what needs to happen when kids behave in a certain way,” Nelson said last week.
As part of its proposal, Fresno Unified has committed more than $8 million in social-emotional supports, including additional social workers, counselors and campus safety assistants. The new proposal on Thursday includes “equal, fair and consistent student discipline across the district.”
Rice could not be reached late Thursday following the district’s latest proposal.
Teacher pay and benefits
FTA called for a 4 percent salary increase last year, and a 3 percent increase through 2019. The union also wants $3 million in stipends and salary enhancements, and has demands for better health care, saying teachers are incurring rising out-of-pocket costs under the district’s current plan.
“How do you attract and retain quality educators? By improving salary and health benefits,” Rice said. “It’s pretty surprising to see where we fall compared to surrounding districts when we’re the fourth largest school district in the state, which has a lot of funding.”
$65,000 - $80,000Average annual salary of teachers in Fresno County
On average, teachers in Fresno County make between $65,000 and $80,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The FTA has also taken issue with Nelson’s salary. According to his contract approved earlier this month, Nelson’s annual pay will start at $295,000.
The district’s proposal on Thursday was this: a 3.5 percent total ongoing salary increase retroactive from July 1, 2016 (resulting in a 14.7 percent salary increase since 2013). It cuts “out of pocket” maximum cost for employees by half and add new language to ensure health-care premiums remain the same through 2019.
The district said the new proposal would reduce the district reserve fund to 4.3 percent. Reserves are typically used to cover unexpected costs.
Perhaps the biggest issue between Fresno Unified and its teachers is communication – or a lack thereof.
Rice said Fresno Unified has a culture that diminishes the role of teachers and tries to stifle their voice.
Despite any narrative that we aren’t at the table, we’re still in a space to try to create a deal, and we are still trying to eliminate the possibility of a strike.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson
“It’s been really frustrating over the last 14 months for them to respond with status quo on a lot of these issues. Status quo isn’t working,” Rice said. “District leadership needs to recognize that we need the same things as them – we need to work together to come up with the priorities of this district. It’s just baffling to me why they wouldn’t want to address these things and figure out how to work together.”
Nelson has said he won’t be debating the issues on social media or negotiating outside of the bargaining room anytime soon, but he takes issues with FTA’s claims that the district isn’t being cooperative.
“Despite any narrative that we aren’t at the table, we’re still in a space to try to create a deal, and we are still trying to eliminate the possibility of a strike,” he said. “We’ve been really respectful of the mediation process. I don’t tweet about it for that reason. These are the lives of kids and employees that we are talking about.”
Who: Fresno Teachers Association
Where: Peoples Church, 7172 N. Cedar Ave.
When: Oct. 3, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.