Threat of strike ends as Fresno Unified deal promises teachers ‘a new era’

Just before 5 a.m. Wednesday, after another all-night bargaining session, Fresno Unified and teachers union officials signed a deal that took more than a year to deliver – ending threats of a strike.

The tentative agreement includes a total 8.5 percent salary increase for teachers over three years (including some retroactive adjustments); changes to healthcare, in which the district will pay $18,000 per employee each year including a 90/10 coinsurance plan; and district-wide reductions to classroom sizes, meaning teachers will have no more than 29 students at a time – and even less for younger grades.

Thousands of Fresno Unified teachers in October voted to authorize the Fresno Teachers Association to call a strike if an agreement couldn’t be reached. While the threat of a strike is over, FTA president Tish Rice said without that vote, a compromise wouldn’t have happened.

“Without their collective action and willingness to strike in order to improve student learning conditions and working conditions, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Rice said, fighting back tears at a news conference held at Leavenworth Elementary alongside FUSD officials. “It’s my hope for 2018 that this will be the year that FTA and FUSD launch new practices that demonstrate a partnership built on mutual trust and respect that ultimately brings healing to Fresno Unified. The real work begins today.”

The contract, which addresses a slew of issues including investments in school nurses, special education and campus safety, still has to be approved by a vote from the school board and FTA members.

Wednesday’s agreement came one day before an outside, neutral fact-finding report was to make recommendations on the contract, after 18 months of back and forth between the district and the union, but no such report will be released publicly now.

FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson said it’s time to “redefine and repair” relationships that were broken and to begin “changing the narrative” around the district’s culture when it comes to relationships with teachers.

“It’s a healing process,” he said. “People wonder who won in negotiations today? Kids won. That’s who won.”

When asked what was the deciding factor that allowed an agreement to be reached after so long, both Nelson and Rice pointed to meetings facilitated by Fresno Pacific University – where leaders met to focus on communication.

“They offered services in holding informal, guided conversations, not specifically about bargaining but just about how to communicate with each other because that was a big concern,” Rice said.

Nelson said those meetings were crucial in “humanizing” the discussions.

“It was about how we were going to interact going forward and what is the nature of the collaboration?” he said.

Fresno Unified is under different leadership than when it first started negotiations with teachers. Nelson was officially named superintendent in September, replacing Michael Hanson, who was terminated without cause and new trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas was named board president last month, replacing embattled trustee Brooke Ashjian.

Jonasson Rosas promised a “collaborative, inclusive” philosophy going forward that “avoids unnecessary conflict” and focuses on students and families.

“By successfully finishing this marathon as a unified school district, we are turning the page on a new chapter in our future,” she said.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand released a statement, saying he was “extremely happy” to hear Wednesday’s news.

“This tentative contract is a sensible compromise that honors the district’s fiscal responsibility while also respecting the hard work and dedication of Fresno’s teachers,” Brand said. “This is good news for our kids, good news for our families, and good news for our community.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays