by Bill McEwen
The last thing our city needs is a teachers’ strike.
A strike says many things, none of them good.
It paints a picture of an organization in turmoil and filled with distrust.
When that organization is a school district, a strike raises doubts in families about whether educating their children is the No. 1 priority. A strike causes moms and dads to explore options: charter schools, different districts — anything to escape the mess.
Let’s not forget about the teachers, either. A strike will inspire many of them to seek greener pastures.
For the city of Fresno, the stakes are high, too. The city finally has a sound economic stimulus incentive plan that is bearing fruit.
What are the things companies evaluate when looking to relocate or expand? Workforce quality and wages, crime levels, housing costs, transportation access, and schools. A strike, even, a short one, by Fresno Unified teachers, will be on every company’s radar.
So, if California’s fourth-largest public school system has a teacher’s strike, the fallout will extend beyond the district’s 73,000 students, their families and the teachers.
Contract That Builds Trust is Top Priority
At this point, I am not picking sides, and you shouldn’t either.
What’s best for students, teachers and Fresno is an equitable resolution of negotiations without a strike. This means agreeing on a contract that raises the trust level between district leaders and the Fresno Teachers Association. Getting there will require an agreement that addresses the needs of teachers without putting Fresno Unified’s finances on shaky ground.
The spotlight, of course, is on new Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson. He’s a career educator and humble. Even those on the teachers’ side of the table say good things about him.
But a superintendent’s No. 1 job is leading in tough situations. Simply letting the negotiations go to a fact-finding board — regardless of the board’s decision about the contract — is not leadership. Nor would that tactic restore the trust that is desperately needed after many years of former superintendent Mike Hanson’s conquer-and-divide tactics.
It doesn’t matter that Nelson’s good graces and calm personality are a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor’s style. If negotiations proceed to fact-finding, many teachers will look at Nelson and say, “New boss, same results.”
The same test applies to the teachers’ union. A strike would signify that union leadership has other motives beyond doing what’s best for the district.
Quit Expecting Teachers to Fix Fresno’s Problems
That said, I understand the teachers’ frustration and why they authorized the possibility of a strike.
Teachers all over America, but especially those in Fresno Unified, have been tasked with not only educating children but with fixing society’s problems.
It’s an impossible assignment. U.S. presidents, congressmen and opinion columnists would fall flat on their faces if presented with the same daily challenges that teachers face. It’s time for everyone — superintendents and trustees, included — to listen more to what teachers say about what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom.
But Fresno Unified teachers must not let their emotions cloud good judgment. And they must not let pent-up frustration result in a strike that harms the district for years to come.
How to Avoid Strike and Move Ahead
The district should stop spending money on media ads to influence public opinion. The teachers’ union needs to get off Twitter and Facebook. And the teachers’ union should stop complaining about the district hiring substitutes to cover classrooms in case of a strike. My goodness, what is the district supposed to do — close the schools?
This battle needs to go quiet on the public front. Next time the district’s negotiating team and union leaders meet there should be one item on the agenda: How do we make Fresno Unified better?
I suggest, borrowing a phrase from my kindergarten teacher, all bring their “listening ears.”
Good attitudes, compromising spirits and empathy for the other side can move Fresno Unified ahead. What a story that would be: On the precipice of a strike, Fresno Unified’s managers and teachers find a path to better days.
It’s not too late.