Fresno Unified teachers very likely to strike. Here are the issues.

IMG 8303Credit: Courtesy of Fresno Teachers Association

More than a thousand members of the Fresno Teachers Association rallied in late May and vowed to strike if the union and school district fail to agree to a contract by Sept. 29, 2023.

The state’s third-largest school district, Fresno Unified, and its teachers union, have, since November 2022, tried to agree on a contract that invests in teachers.

The Fresno Teachers Association say their proposals are classroom-centered ideas to improve public education, including bettering teacher’s working environment, adding academic and social-emotional student support and increasing pay and benefits.

FTA president Manuel Bonilla said the school district hasn’t responded in a meaningful way, “really showing they have a lack of vision and honor the status quo.”

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson disagrees.

“One of things that’s frequently said is, ‘You have no vision,’” said Nelson, regarding FTA’s claims. “Our vision was to sit down and create a new way of bargaining, where we would work collaboratively on the things that really matter.”

Amid the tug-of-war of negotiations and a looming strike, both sides insist that they want to collaborate but continue to accuse the other side of stalling and impeding progress.  Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and more than 70,000 students who are still dealing with learning loss from the pandemic will inevitably bear the brunt of the fallout.

While a compromise may be attainable on some issues, others – notably class size caps, lifetime medical benefits after retirement and ways of supporting students outside of class – are still elusive.

Perhaps pay is negotiable

The union argues that to recruit and retain high quality teachers, Fresno Unified – the Central Valley’s largest employer with a $2.3 billion budget – should set the standard for salary and benefits, starting with raising pay to keep pace with the rising inflation and the cost of living.

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Bonilla said that the district has been “defunding teachers” within the last decade.

He cited an FTA analysis showing that, despite increased funding and a rising number of teachers, the district has invested a smaller portion of the overall budget on teacher salaries over the years. Ten years ago, for instance, the district allocated 41% of its budget to teacher salaries compared to 27% in the most recent budget — 14% less resources assigned to those in the classroom.

The school district’s analysis of salary, inflation and cost-of-living paints a different picture.

District spokesperson Nikki Henry said that the district’s analysis of its salary increases between 2013-14 and 2022-23 shows that all staff have received 32.7% increases.  On top of that, teachers received step increases and longevity stipends, amounting to an additional 40%. The salary increases outpace inflation over the same period, which was 30%, according to the district’s analysis.

The district estimates that the 11% raises it’s offering would put the average teacher salary at over six figures. Despite teachers being at different levels of the pay schedule, Fresno Unified said teachers earn an average of $90,650, in pay alone, for 185 work days, based on a $490 average daily rate — a number Bonilla said is inflated.

Based on Fresno Unified’s pay schedule, salary currently ranges from $56,013  for new teachers to about $102,000 for teachers with loads of experience, not including those with professional development.

The district has also agreed to fund medical costs at 100%,  Nelson said. But that action stemmed from a health management board vote about the district health care fund, not from negotiations, Bonilla said.

One-hundred-percent district-funded healthcare happened, in part, Bonilla said, because the health fund is “overfunded.”  The district’s health care fund has a surplus of money, estimated at $47 million this school year, according to a June 2023 document shared with EdSource. At this level, FTA argues, the health fund can cover the costs of its proposal to restart lifetime medical benefits for retirees.

No agreement on lifetime benefits

Nelson maintains that restarting lifetime benefits puts the district’s fiscal solvency in jeopardy.

“I’m not going to make any decisions that I think would put the district in long-term fiscal danger,” he said.

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Fresno Unified ended the practice in 2005, but 300 or so employees, including Superintendent Nelson, had qualified for  lifetime benefits before it ended.

For the  hundreds of current employees still eligible for lifetime benefits, Nelson said, estimated future costs total more than $1 billion. And, if lifetime benefits are restored or based on 2020 hire dates as proposed, the future costs will grow by hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It creates a fiscal cliff… a world of unknowns, none of which you can financially plan for,” he said.

Class size average v. class size cap. Caps can lower class sizes, union says

Though lifetime retiree benefits is the top issue that the district won’t agree to, it’s not the only one.

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Ninety-three percent of Fresno Unified’s 1,800 teachers who responded to an August and September 2022 union poll either strongly agreed or agreed  that lowering class sizes would improve student learning.

Fresno Unified acknowledges the importance of smaller classes but “draws the line” on capping class size as the union proposed, stating that it forces schools to move students out of a class, or even a school, if a class reaches its cap.

“I can’t rationalize that in any fair way,” Nelson said. Henry added that such stringent measures would split families who attend their neighborhood school.

District wants contract to address student underperformance

Bonilla said that Fresno Unified insists on tying student performance to teacher evaluations, which “unfairly penalizes the teacher” for factors out of their control.

“The teacher could potentially be negatively impacted by that without having the authority to say, ‘we need to change these working conditions,’” Bonilla said about a teacher’s inability to control class size or students’ adverse experiences.

District officials say that using students’ outcomes in teachers’ evaluations is not meant to be punitive but to help educators grow.

Based on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP tests, most Fresno Unified students did not meet state standards in 2022: 67.76% failed to meet the English language arts standards, and 79.18% didn’t reach the math standards.

The school board is pressuring the district to address students’ underperformance, Nelson said.

“If kids are not thriving in a setting , for whatever reason, we have an obligation to go figure out why — and unapologetically,” Nelson said.

Proposals for student support shouldn’t be in the contract, the district argues

Also on the negotiation table are the union’s ideas for student support which the district says go beyond teachers’ working conditions and don’t belong in the teacher contract.

Bonilla said most of the ideas came straight from educators – who work with students directly  and know the factors, outside the classroom, that are impacting students’ ability to learn.

With clothing closets at nearly two dozen schools, Henry said, Fresno Unified already practices some of the common-good measures. While the staff at those schools started the ventures themselves, she said,  the district will offer $10,000 startup costs for other schools wanting to start the initiative.

Last school year, Fresno Unified also provided new washers and dryers at each of its middle schools, also spearheaded by teachers.

Nelson questions some of the other student support ideas proposed by the union, such as utilizing school parking lots to serve the homeless population.  “It’s not our area of expertise,” he said, adding that the district is willing to partner with experts serving that population.

“Is it the school system’s job to fix everything in regards to societal things? Absolutely not,” Bonilla said. Like other districts with 55% or more of students living in poverty, or are English learners, foster youth or homeless, Fresno Unified receives 65% more of its base funding.

In fact, 87% of Fresno Unified students fall into at least one of those categories, so on top of the more than $650 million in basic educational costs, the district gets over $249 million for its targeted students, according to the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan Executive Summary.

Bonilla said the ideas, such as the parking lot for homeless families to park their cars, are meant to start a conversation with district leaders.

“There are ideas on how we might do it because nobody else is thinking about these things,” he said. “Instead of coming to the table and designing something with us, they rather scrutinize the idea and shut down the conversation. Our ideas are not the end all, be all; they are a starting point. And if they have a better idea, let’s do that. But they don’t even want to have a conversation.”

Ideas or not, it’s a part of FTA’s last, best and final offer, Nelson and Henry discussed.

Nelson said that the union has not deviated much from that proposal, even in July and September mediations, which to Nelson, is an indicator that the union hasn’t moved toward a shared vision for the school district.

The union shared a similar sentiment about the district, saying that since contract negotiations started in November, Fresno Unified has focused on defending what it currently does in regard to pay and benefits, class size and student support.

Awaiting fact-finding report, which both sides have preconceived notions about

Negotiations have led to a May promise to strike, to both sides declaring impasse in July and to failed mediation attempts in July and during a Sept. 5-7 fact-finding.

“I’m holding out some hope that the fact-finder’s report will get us to a different state,” Nelson said.

In the fact-finding stage, FTA and Fresno Unified made presentations to a neutral third party, who will make a recommendation.

“They don’t come into this process trying to improve school systems,” Bonilla said. “They come into this process trying to settle a contract.”

The fact finder will most likely focus on salary and benefits, Bonilla said, not lowering class size, for example.

“That should be the leadership’s position of working with teachers in order to figure out how to design those systems,” Bonilla said, adding that Nelson will most likely propose adopting the findings, as-is, like he did in 2017 when teachers voted to strike – but averted it. The teachers union, Bonilla said, will not write a “blank check” from someone who doesn’t know teachers’ day-to-day reality.

Despite the union attempting to “invalidate” the findings, as Henry described it, district leadership remains confident in the report, which is expected early next week.

If the union and district still don’t agree on a contract 10 days after the fact-finding report, the district must release that report to the public, leaving them with the option to impose a contract and allowing the union to vote to strike.

FTA had already imposed a Sept. 29 deadline for the school district to agree on a contract or face an Oct. 18 strike vote, which teachers may feel is the only route left to take.

Is striking the only option left?

Many teachers, according to Bonilla, do not feel supported and are disappointed by the district’s response – or lack thereof – to what the union considers solution-based methods.

“We went through the avenues that one should go through,” Bonilla said, noting how more than 100 teachers attended eight school board meetings. “We communicated with board members. We communicated with the superintendent.

“We’re here because Superintendent Nelson has failed to give vision (and) direction.”

Nelson’s vision, he said, was to change how bargaining traditionally happened: to be able to sit down and collaborate without a third party mediator having to step in.

Thinking long term, Nelson continues to believe that coming to — and staying at — the bargaining table is the best route for Fresno Unified.

“There’s no scenario — even the scenario by which they take the strike vote and actually strike — where you don’t have to sit down and have a productive discussion,” Nelson said.

If and when that conversation takes place, Bonilla said, the administration must listen to teachers.

“In many ways, we’re fighting for the heart and soul of this school district,” he said. “This model that doesn’t give voice to those actually in the classroom needs to end if we really want to be a school district that meets the needs of our students.”

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