Education Lab

Fresno teachers demand smaller class sizes, safer classrooms

Fresno teachers rallied outside the Fresno Unified school board meeting Wednesday demanding smaller class sizes and safer classrooms, and calling for more social workers, psychologists and nurses.

The typical Fresno Unified high school classroom has about 40 students, according to Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice.

“That’s just way too many students to really be an effective teacher and make sure you’re meeting the needs of the individual student,” Rice said at the board meeting at Sunnyside High School. “We really want to sit down with the district and have a hard discussion.”

Sunnyside student Esteffanni Lemus spoke to Superintendent Michael Hanson, saying that while he often speaks of Fresno’s poverty, “the school district is not poor,” and urged him to use money to help classrooms.

“The number of students in each classroom is overwhelming,” she said. “A single teacher cannot help every single student, especially when there are students who constantly misbehave.”

Rice asked the board Wednesday to cap classroom sizes and hire more full-time support staff, including health professionals and campus safety assistants, by next school year.

Similar demands by the Fresno Teachers Association have been denied in negotiations with the district over the past several months, with an agreement on teacher pay and other matters yet to be settled.

In November, after 12 unsuccessful collective bargaining sessions, the district declared an impasse, requiring the Public Employment Relations Board to step in to mediate. The district’s “best and final” offer to the Fresno Teachers Association includes a 7 percent total salary package: a 5 percent ongoing salary increase and a 2 percent one-time payment. The offer also includes pay increases for speech language pathologists and more money for student supplies.

The district contends that its latest offer is fair, and that it has smaller classroom sizes and more health care and safety support services than neighboring districts.

“As we move closer to the heart of our annual standardized testing season, the Fresno Unified School District is eager to reach a contract resolution with the Fresno Teachers Association,” the district said in a statement Wednesday. “Our students are demonstrating remarkable achievements due to the hard work of our teachers, and we absolutely want to ensure that our teaching staff is fairly compensated.”

Rice has criticized Fresno Unified’s spending in light of a federal investigation of the district’s no-bid construction contracts. The district has racked up legal fees since the investigation began and is also fighting challenges to a $37 million no-bid project in court.

The FTA has also attacked Hanson’s $425,000 salary. He is the second-highest-paid K-12 educator in the state.

Karl Kaku, a Fresno High teacher who attended the FTA rally, called the district’s recent spending on things unrelated to students “heartbreaking.”

“It’s a shame the kids are totally losing out,” he said. “It seems like the district doesn’t question spending $100,000 for an attorney and $200,000 for this and that, when we don’t even have materials half the time. We have to beg to even go on a field trip.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays