Saying that they don’t have enough of a voice in Clovis Unified decision-making — including how soon students return to campus during the pandemic — a group of Clovis Unified educators say it’s time to form a union.
The Association of Clovis Educators announced this week that work is underway to collect employee signatures for a petition to initiate the creation of a bargaining unit.
The announcement came in an open letter to the Clovis Unified community that was signed by 73 teachers, counselors, and psychologists who said they fully support the district’s ethos of upholding excellence and acknowledge that not all educators will want union representation.
The district has long painted itself as a “family” with standards of excellence set by longtime superintendent Dr. Floyd “Doc” Buchanan and traditions that are celebrated by generations.
Concerns have been raised by opponents about whether the union organizing efforts will insert a wedge between employees, damaging collegial relationships and morale.
Sara Murray, a sixth grade teacher at Boris Elementary School and one of the signers of the open letter, said union supporters and opponents need to remember that they share common ground, and that’s making sure students are getting the best education possible.
“We’re all for the kids,” she said. “It shouldn’t be you against me and us against them. Everyone has a right to make their voice heard.”
Faculty Senate Model is ‘Quaint’
Teachers advocating for union representation believe the Clovis Unified Faculty Senate has been an ineffective advocate in recent years, and that teacher voices are going unheard when it comes to making decisions about what’s best for students in the classroom, ACE spokeswoman Kristin Heimerdinger told GV Wire℠ on Wednesday.
“The vision of the Faculty Senate is quaint,” she said. “When the district was smaller, it was a more viable model of representation that doesn’t work now that the district is larger.”
Clovis Unified is the state’s 14th largest school district, with more than 43,600 students.
Discussions about forming a union intensified last summer in reaction to Clovis Unified’s plans to reopen schools during the pandemic. Some teachers felt the administration and school board failed to consider input from teachers and other certificated staffers in their decision-making process.
Heimerdinger said the district did seek out the opinion of teachers on surveys, including the most recent one on whether students should get more classroom time, even if that caused disruptions for students and teachers, or leave schedules as they were since the end of the school year is only a few months away. Even though 57% of teachers surveyed said the district should make no changes, Clovis Unified went ahead with the revisions, said Heimerdinger, who teaches AP macroeconomics at Buchanan High School and has been a teacher for 28 years.
If the administration disregards the teacher majority, there is no recourse at this point, she said.
Pandemic Created Challenges
District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the district is constrained by labor laws from weighing in on ACE’s proposal. However, she said, the district remains committed to hearing from all employees at all levels.
Avants acknowledged that the pandemic challenged the district’s traditions of collaboration as divisions formed among employee teams and across the Clovis Unified community about how to provide schooling.
Backlash to the proposed teachers union already is forming. As of Wednesday morning, 203 members of the Clovis Unified community — 125 employees with educator certificates, 23 classified employees who provide support services, 61 community members, and 31 identified as “close family or friend” — had signed on in support of Clovis Teachers for Clovis.
Classified employees who have custodial, campus catering, or transportation jobs have their own union representation through the California School Employees Association.
Clovis Teachers for Clovis contends that a teachers union would damage, not improve, team-building efforts that are a hallmark of Clovis Unified.
Tosh Demsey, a Clovis High teacher, provided one of the anti-union testimonials on the website: “I am so thankful to work in a non-union school district and the healthier working environment it creates between everyone, where we can put the needs of our students first. Having worked at Edison High School in Fresno Unified as part of a union for the first 6 years of my teaching career before switching to Clovis High School for the last 14 years, I have seen first-hand how good we have it in Clovis Unified. I saw the ugly politics and hostility between teachers and admin that the union can foster. You have my 100% support in keeping CUSD from becoming unionized.”
Unions Too Powerful?
The Clovis teachers union campaign comes at a time when some Fresno Unified parents say the Fresno Teachers Association holds too much sway over district decisions, to the detriment of students and their education. That viewpoint has been expressed primarily by parents decrying distance learning and lobbying for children to return to classrooms.
The district had to renegotiate a school reopening labor agreement with the FTA after the state announced that more financial incentives would come to districts that reopened in the red Tier 2 by March 31, or the end of spring break. The red tier is when a county has substantial risk for COVID-19 infection.
Under the previous agreement, Fresno Unified classrooms would remain closed to in-person instruction for the most part until Fresno County reached the orange Tier 3, or when the risk of COVID-19 transmission is moderate. In exchange for FTA agreeing to return in the red tier instead of orange, the district agreed to put $8 million into the employee health fund and give more than $3 million for an extra day of pay so teachers could set up their classrooms prior to the start of in-person instruction.
Clovis Unified teachers want the same ability to negotiate their working conditions with the administration, and to know that their voices are being heard when important decisions such as reopening schools are being made, Heimerdinger said.
Although some parents are blaming the Fresno teachers union for the slower reopening, Kingburg schools opened even more quickly than Clovis, and those teachers have union representation, she said.
Pay Bonuses Offered
ACE’s open letter to the community concluded with what appeared to be a veiled warning to Clovis Unified not to interfere with its efforts to organize a bargaining unit.
” … We have been organizing for several months. During this time, the district has become fully aware of our efforts and in response has begun producing discussions around bonuses and other incentives. These, and other recent gestures, reveal that our efforts to organize are making a positive difference. Going forward, we ask Clovis Unified to respect our legally protected, collective decision to unionize and to not exercise influence, interference or intimidation around our efforts, but instead, to work with us to make our district (is) the best place in our nation to teach and to learn.”
Avants said those bonus discussions are completely unrelated to ACE’s organizing, and trying to connect them “is kind of offensive to me.”
Every year for the past 12 years, the Employee Compensation Committee meets to review projected funding levels and then recommends compensation adjustments, she said. The governor’s proposed budget includes significant increases for education funding next year, and the district is considering one-time bonuses in recognition of the “massive amounts of extra work” that staffers had to perform as schools adjusted to pandemic restrictions and reopenings, Avants said.
How Will Election Work
Heimerdinger said ACE is trying to convey accurate information, since there are many undecided educators who will look to the ACE and the Clovis Teachers for Clovis websites for information. She said she has seen a number of errors in the CTC website, such as how the union decision will be made.
Contrary to what’s on the CTC website, there will not be a secret election open only to pro-union teachers, she said. The signature drive is itself the election, and once more than half of the district’s teachers, counselors, and psychologists have signed on, the petition will be submitted to the state Public Employee Relations Board, which then contacts Clovis Unified to verify the signatures. The district employs more than 2,100 certificated staffers.
ACE has a year to collect the signatures but hopes to be done by the end of this school year so the union can begin surveying employees and then negotiate a contract for the new school year, Heimerdinger said.
The association has been receiving support from the California Teachers Association, which also is the parent organization for the Fresno Teachers Association.