Opinion

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.

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3 Responses

  1. Scott Hatfield

    Bill, I know you think you are not ‘taking sides’.

    But when you urge compromise at any cost, you are effectively claiming there is no issue worth exposing the district to the real possibility of a labor stoppage and the potential harms that might ensue. That means a negotiated settlement on traditional terms, and some modified version of the ‘status quo’, rather than radical change.

    And that means you are really on the district’s side, because it is the teacher’s union—-my colleagues—-that is willing to sacrifice dollars in teacher’s paycheck to bring radical change to this district, and it is the district—my employer—that is holding out for ‘status quo’, and hoping to ‘buy’ a negotiated settlement by offering salary and benefits.

    You are fearful that a work stoppage will damage this district’s reputation, as if the failed Hansen regime and the dysfunctional Board now in place represent the bar for civility and transparency. Are we really expected to believe that a work stoppage that leads to more favorable working conditions for teachers will make this district less attractive than the present circus on M Street?

    I ask you to consider the possibility that the OPPOSITE could be true: that is, that FUSD will find it easier to attract and retain quality teachers in the event that a contract is obtained with language that guarantees reduced class sizes, better working conditions for teachers and better learning conditions for students.

    I ask you to consider the possibility that perpetuating the ‘status quo’ of high class size poses a far greater risk to our students than a work stoppage, and thus provides a moral basis for a strike to achieve that goal.

    Reply
    • Bill McEwen

      I considered all the points you raised before writing. Many of them are valid. My hope is that both sides will start talking to each other instead of talking at each other. The overriding issue here is mutual trust and mutual respect. Without that, the district can’t move forward. With “marathon” sessions scheduled for Friday, according to FTA’s Jon Bath, let’s hope that progress toward an equitable contract can be made.

      Reply
  2. Elle

    My big question is, if you know, proof positive, that most of what is coming out of FUSD is lies that are being fed to the populous, then you don’t go online and post the truth?

    The problem isn’t that they are hiring subs. It’s that the subs are making more than the teachers are. And yes! Close the schools that would do less damage to grades and education than subs who don’t know what is going on. The students would be safer at home.

    Look, FTA and the teachers don’t want to strike but when you are being lied to, when you are being disrespected, what else can you do? Teachers came to negotiate, waited four hours for a two or three paragraph statement saying that negotiations failed when in reality FUSD walked out after the handshake.

    Reply

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