Since dramatically avoiding a strike at the last minute early in 2018, Fresno Unified leaders and the teachers union have gone to great lengths to keep their public comments positive.
But as the final scheduled Board of Trustees meeting before the summer break approaches, there are signs their lovefest is ending.
You are forgiven for asking, “Didn’t they sign a new contract last year?”
They did, but the rancor before then had led to the teachers working without a contract since June 30, 2016. The pact the trustees ratified Feb. 7, 2018, thankfully ended the strike threat but bought just 17 months of labor peace.
Goal is a Three-Year Deal Before July Begins
Both sides have made it a priority to have a new three-year contract ready to go when the current one expires at the end of this month.
The thinking on both sides is that Fresno Unified will be better positioned to improve student achievement if there’s labor harmony through the end of the 2021-22 school year. That still could happen, but strains in the relationship suddenly appeared last week.
Agreement ‘in Principle’ Until Trustees Raise Concerns
On June 4, the Fresno Teachers Association announced on its Facebook page that the union and district negotiators had reached an agreement “in principle.”
In a nutshell, teachers would get 2%-a-year raises, a 1.5% one-time bonus, and up to 1% more annually based on the district receiving additional funding. In addition, there would be classroom size deductions and in classrooms with large numbers of students, teachers would have a choice of an additional aide or more pay.
Teachers also would have a greater voice in classroom discipline and in their professional development. And in a big win for the union, health care coverage and cost sharing would remain as it is under the expiring contract.
But in a followup Facebook Live event, FTA Executive Director Luis Jamerson said that when the agreement was presented to district trustees, “there were some concerns made.”
Said Jamerson about Wednesday’s board meeting: “We want to go and encourage the board to settle a tentative agreement on a great deal.”
Trustees Worry About District Reserves, Spending Flexibility
Some board members worry that the third year of the proposed contract erodes too much of the district’s financial reserve. In addition, there is a concern the proposal would limit trustees’ ability to direct future funding where they believe it’s needed.
“Maintaining adequate reserves and maintaining the board’s authority over future financial decisions are important,” trustee Carol Mills said.
Reserve funds, for example, can be tapped to avoid teacher layoffs when there is a recession. And should the district receive more state funding than anticipated in future years, trustees might want to use that money for more classroom size reductions instead of supplemental raises.
Clearly, it would be a huge mistake for the district to agree to a contract it can’t afford. In the early 2000s, the district was on the verge of insolvency. A new superintendent, Michael Hanson, got the district back on sound financial footing, but his hard-line negotiating tactics depressed district morale.
There’s Still Time to Come to Agreement
One of Bob Nelson’s highest priorities as Hanson’s successor has been to rebuild trust. FTA has responded in kind.
All of FTA’s top leaders — Jamerson, Manuel Bonilla, and Jon Bath — have embraced a holistic approach to solving district problems instead of focusing almost entirely on salary and benefits. In doing so, they have stuck their necks out.
District leaders have stuck their necks out, too, in the quest for a deal that stamps Fresno Unified as a district rowing in the same direction with all of its oars.
It would be a shame if the district and the union can’t iron out the final few items without forcing the public to pick sides in a fight that could turn ugly.