Central Unified teachers take one step closer to a strike

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Central Unified teachers demonstrated outside of the district office Thursday in support of smaller class sizes, more socio-emotional support for students and higher pay.

Contract negotiations between the Central Unified Teachers Association and district representatives have been at an impasse since September, and Thursday marked the second of three mediation sessions meant to bring talks to a resolution. If an agreement is not reached through mediation, the union would move to fact-finding and a possible strike vote.

Beth Hullender, the chair of the organizing committee for CUTA, says the district is losing qualified teachers who are leaving for smaller classes and better pay at other districts.

“We’re not asking the district for anything that’s not possible,” Hullender said. “We would never want to do something to hurt the district.”

Jack Kelejian, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, said in a statement that Central Unified is still negotiating in good faith with CUTA.

”We are having open communications and discussing proposals through the mediation process,” Kelejian said. “We’re optimistic that we can come to an agreement and resolution that will meet the needs of our students and staff.”

Class sizes and enrollment

Hullender said she teaches 28 students in her second-grade classroom at Steinbeck Elementary, despite a district cap of 26 students in elementary classes. The cap is based on the average number of students in classrooms.

Hullender added that district high school teachers teach up to 40 students at a time, and that students who need support from social workers and psychologists don’t have ready access to it, creating an additional burden for classroom teachers.

“We know students need more individual attention than that,” Hullender said.

Union president Judee Martinez said that Central teachers are asking for much of the same as other teachers unions throughout the state. But the rapid pace of development west of Highway 99 in Fresno has attracted more people, making the need for additional classrooms more dire, according to Martinez.

The most recent data available from the California Department of Education shows an enrollment of 15,893 students for the 2017-18 school year, a slight increase from 15,490 students in 2013-14.

Martinez said the district does not have more stringent class size caps for core classes like math and English. Some Central teachers have even found themselves without a home classroom, according to Martinez, instead taking their supplies from room to room on a cart.

“We’re letting the district know we’re serious about what we’re asking for,” Martinez said.


Teacher salary is another point of contention for union members. A CUTA graph shows that new teachers at Central can expect to make an average of $47,182, comparable to Fresno Unified’s $49,330. But union members say that compensation doesn’t track with experience: Teachers who have five years of teaching experience average about $56,483 at Central and $63,292 at Fresno Unified, a gap that continues with additional years of teaching until the max salary, when the two districts are mostly aligned again.

The union has not gone on strike in recent memory, though negotiations came to a similar stall in 2007, when district and union officials eventually agreed to a 3 percent pay raise for teachers, nurses, psychologists, speech therapists and counselors. The union has approximately 850 members.

“We’ve been waiting for compensation and reduced class sizes and more socio-emotional support,” Martinez said. “We’ve been waiting for all of it for a long time.”

Fresno Unified and the Fresno Teachers Association reached a tentative agreement in February 2018 after months of negotiations on salary, class size and more – avoiding a threatened strike.

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.