Opinion by

Bill McEwen

It’s easy for both sides in contract negotiations to draw hard lines when the deadline is far away.

But when it gets down to crunch time, the tenor can change. A huge question enters the room: Do we really want to endure the costs — not to mention the hard feelings that will linger afterward — of failing to reach an agreement?

Something else accompanies the final ticks of the negotiating clock — urgency. There’s nothing like a deadline to get something done.

That’s my hope for Fresno Unified School District leadership and the Fresno Teachers Association. Thus far, both sides have been as steadfast as rebar-fortified concrete.

The teachers are willing to strike for the first time since 1978. They convinced me of that when several thousand FTA members voted to authorize one in October. Only a handful voiced their opposition to striking in the meeting at Peoples Church.

District leadership, meanwhile, has taken a hardline approach. Superintendent Bob Nelson has made it clear that the district will await a mediation panel’s “fact-finding” report before considering changes to what’s on the table.

Opportunity to Settle Dispute Starts Next Week

However, there is a bit of good news ahead, and it involves timing. Each side will receive the report and its contract recommendations Monday, Jan. 8. Two days later, at 10 a.m., Gov. Jerry Brown will introduce his proposed 2018-19 state budget. Then on Jan. 18, Fresno Unified and FTA will be free to release the mediator’s recommendations to the public.

It is important to remember something else, too. The teachers are seeking something that won’t cost the district a dime: A voice in important district decisions about curriculum and classroom discipline.

Why is the governor’s budget important to avoid a strike?

Because the sides will have a much clearer picture of what Fresno Unified can — and can’t — afford to pay teachers. It will also clarify the financial feasibility of meeting FTA demands for other things, such as smaller class sizes.

As I see it, Nelson and FTA leadership will have at least seven days to engage in meaningful negotiations. Those negotiations must take place. If they don’t, it will be a failure of leadership — with blame assigned to whatever side is unwilling to forge ahead. It could be both sides.

It is important to remember something else, too. The teachers are seeking something that won’t cost the district a dime: A voice in important district decisions about curriculum and classroom discipline.

Given Fresno Unified’s longstanding failure to improve academic performance, the district should seek the teachers’ help — not leave it to administrators and trustees to come up with solutions.

Sacramento Settles Dispute With Soda and Kettle Corn

In November, teachers in Sacramento City Unified School District were four days from their strike date. But Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg intervened and hosted negotiations  “over soda and kettle corn,” Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee.  Those talks produced a contract with an 11% raise over three years and a salary-scale change boosting pay for mid-career teachers.

Interestingly, The Bee also reported this: “The school district and teachers union have agreed to negotiate together with the district’s health care providers to lower health care costs. If they can find ways to save money, they will try to fund nurses, counselors and mental health workers, as well as reduce class sizes.

“The union and district, along with Steinberg, also plan to craft a measure on the 2020 ballot to fund arts, music and sports programs. Steinberg said that the measure would ensure that new funds supplement existing dollars for those programs.”

In other words, both sides made compromises to avert a strike. They had sufficient mutual trust to explore options on other big issues. And they got creative.

Should Mayor Brand Get Involved?

I am not suggesting the Fresno Mayor Lee Brand must intervene. His reputation is that of a businessman and it might be difficult for him to quickly gain the union’s trust. Steinberg, a lawyer and former President pro-Tempore of the state Senate, entered the Sacramento negotiations with years of experience in these matters.

But if Brand felt comfortable doing so, it certainly wouldn’t hurt for him to speak to both sides about the harm that a strike would do, and make suggestions on ways to reach an agreement. If he helps broker a deal, it would be a huge win for him politically and for the city.

Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian tweeted this Thursday afternoon:

 

Winds of change? Perhaps. More likely, it’s the urgency that comes when reality and the last ticks of the clock stare you in the face.

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