At least 2,000 teachers with the Fresno Unified School District voted overwhelmingly Tuesday evening to authorize their union to call a strike if protracted contract negotiations don’t yield an agreement that meets their satisfaction.
Fresno Teachers Association members packed the Peoples Church in northeast Fresno for the strike vote, filling the church auditorium’s first level and balcony to overflowing. When FTA President Tish Rice ultimately called for the vote, the vast majority of the gathering stood and shouted their “yes” votes for the strike authorization, compared to a few dozen who stood to vote no.
“I don’t want to strike, but I will if I need to,” said Jon Bath, a history teacher at Sunnyside High School and head of FTA’s negotiating team, moments before the vote. This is the first time that the district’s teachers have voted to strike since 1978.
The vote does not mean that a strike is imminent, but is effectively a shot across the bow of Fresno Unified administrators and negotiators to achieve some leverage in the ongoing negotiations. The two sides met on Saturday, when the district presented an updated contract proposal to the teachers. Another negotiating session is planned for Friday.
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But no strike can take place until the two sides go through a non-binding fact-finding process. A three-member panel, comprised of one representative from the district, one from the union, and a third neutral representative, will study both proposals and conduct a hearing before eventually issuing a report that can be accepted or rejected by either side.
Both Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson and Bath said they believed the earliest that a strike might happen is the second week of November. And both sides expressed hope that continuing negotiations could head off a strike.
“Hopefully we will not have to strike,” Bath said before the vote. “Hopefully the community will make (the district) respond to our proposal.”
Moments after the vote, the crowd began chanting, “we are ready” and broke into cheers.
Rice said she was pleased to see the enthusiasm that teachers had for the strike vote.
“I think people realize that this is the time for change, that for so long their voices have been muted,” she said. “They’ve been demoralized. They just put their heads down and are in survival mode, and they realize now that through collective action, we can impact and change the district for the betterment of our professionals and our students and families that we serve.”
The last contract between the district and the union expired in July 2016, 16 months ago, but negotiations toward a new three-year contract through June of 2019 have been largely unproductive. There are several points of contention, but among the key factors are teacher pay, health insurance costs, and class size reduction.
The teachers’ union is asking for a 3.5 percent pay raise retroactive to July 2016, as well as a 3 percent raise for the current 2017-18 year and 3 percent in 2018-19. The district’s offer, presented to the union on Saturday, calls for a 3.5 percent raise for 2016-17, but nothing for 2017-18 or 2018-19. Paul Idsvoog, Fresno Unified’s human resources director and lead negotiator for the district, said the district’s latest proposal allows for negotiations to be reopened for salary for 2017-18 and 2018-19.
The union also wants the school district to cover 95 percent of the cost of teachers’ health insurance premiums with a maximum out-of-pocket cost for premiums of $1,250 for a single teacher or $2,500 for a family plan. Teachers also want the district to guarantee that co-payments for medical procedures and expenses would not rise beyond where they will be in November 2017. The district’s proposal is to cover 90 percent of the insurance premiums with language that premiums would remain the same through the term of the contract, but apparently contains no language preventing co-payments from rising.
The FTA also wants a greater emphasis on reducing class sizes, asking for class-size ratios to be capped at 24 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grades, 26 students in fourth through sixth grades, 28 students in seventh and eighth grades, and 30 students in high school. So far, however, the district’s proposal calls for reducing class size ratios only in core classes such as English and math at the high school level.
“Caps are very difficult for school districts in general. When you set caps, as transient as our students are, you hit a hard cap and then you’ve got a kid and all of a sudden you’re moving students, which is not in the best interest of kids,” Idsvoog said. “We want to make sure we are flexible and make sure we have good working conditions for our employees, and make sure we have class sizes that are manageable. But caps are an issue for costs as well as facilities.”
Guidelines and ratios aren’t good enough for the teachers, however. “We’re done with class-size ratios. We want class-size caps,” Bath said before the strike vote, drawing loud cheers from the membership.
District leaders said that while they hope to avoid a strike, they are making plans to hire substitutes to keep schools open if teachers walk out.
Idsvoog said a proposal has been made to the Fresno Area Substitute Teachers Association to pay substitutes $500 a day if a strike happens. The association has not yet accepted that deal, however.
Nelson said the district typically pays substitutes $120 to $140 a day under normal circumstances. The $500 rate, he added, is needed to find substitutes who are willing to cross a contentious picket line in the event of a strike.
Rice said the $500 daily pay for strike substitutes rankled many of her members “because that’s more than they get paid,” and likely fueled some of the pro-strike enthusiasm on Tuesday.