Thousands of teachers voted earlier this month to authorize a future strike. The last time a strike occurred in Fresno schools was 1978, and it lasted eight days. Now the district and the union are headed to the “fact finding” stage of negotiations after more than a year of failed bargaining meetings about teacher pay and health benefits, smaller class sizes and long-term “systemic changes” involving discipline, special education and more.
At fact-finding meetings scheduled for early next month, a “neutral” third party will make a recommendation on the contract proposals, and it will be up to the two sides to accept or reject that recommendation.
The Bee’s editorial board sat down separately with Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson and FTA President Tish Rice, who both agreed that they do not want a strike to happen, and spoke passionately about the state’s fourth-largest district.
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Here are highlights from those meetings:
On heading to fact-finding:
Fresno Unified: The fair and transparent thing to do is accept the outside party’s recommendation.
“Whatever the money says, and whatever the experts dictate, we will move forward on that … and we asked (FTA), ‘Would you do the same?” Nelson said. “Because if they will, and they agree to implement fact-finding, then we can tell the community there will be no strike. We will surrender our will to what the truth is.”
FTA: The district is giving up, and Nelson “can’t hide” behind the label of interim leader anymore. (He was hired in September to replace Michael Hanson).
“We are definitely interested in exploring and figuring out how we can make this work, but it takes two people to do this, and (Nelson) is telling me that he’s relinquishing his power to an outside person who has no idea what’s going on in Fresno Unified,” Rice said. “A fact-finding panel isn’t necessarily there to improve education. They’re there to figure out how to get these two opposing forces to work together. We’re saying let’s do that now. We’re all grown adults, let’s figure it out.”
On the union’s contract demands:
Fresno Unified: Teachers are asking for a lot – some of which are “impossible accommodations” that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Twelve years ago, we were staring down the brink of a state takeover financially. We have no interest putting our community back in that type of scenario, but we want to make sure our compensation is fair,” Nelson said. “Some of these issues, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to discuss them, but is it fodder for the collective bargaining agreement or is it better handled in other conversations?”
FTA: The district has the wrong priorities when it comes to its billion-dollar budget, and is treating bargaining like just another business transaction.
“We are not trying to hurt the district financially. We are partners with the district. Hurting the district financially would be hurting ourselves,” Rice said. “ One of the challenges in working with this district is getting a clear understanding of what’s available when it comes to the budget.”
On the possibility of a strike:
Fresno Unified: We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, but if a strike happens, it’s not on us.
“If we go to a strike, it will not be because we have not worked nights, weekends and done everything we possibly can to avoid a work stoppage. We recognize this is an incredibly damaging thing for our community and something that will go down in the annals of history that people who live here will remember forever,” Nelson said. “The seriousness of that absolutely is not lost on me in the least. It’s sobering.”
FTA: Students’ current conditions are worse than a few days of a strike.
“(FUSD) has not done everything to avoid a strike; if anything, they’re preparing for us to strike. They’ve been dealing with their own dysfunction, their own challenges … they don’t talk about getting bargaining settled (at school board meetings),” Rice said. “Every year, we lose quality educators … and I think that hurts kids more than a temporary loss of instruction that a potential strike might have. Our teachers are saying, ‘We’re willing to do that in order to make change because we need drastic change in this district.’ And that is change that is going to reverberate for decades.”