What's at stake?
Fresno Unified plans to hire thousands of substitute teachers to keep schools open during a strike.
Fresno Unified families awaiting a verdict on whether the district’s approximately 4,000 teachers will be striking this fall will have to wait a little longer.
On Wednesday night, over 3,200 teachers rallied at the Fresno Fairgrounds to begin their long-awaited vote. But union leaders said they expect to continue tallying votes, collected electronically via a third party, through Monday.
Here’s what we know so far.
Will schools stay open in the event of a strike?
The district plans to keep schools open for the over 70,000 students in the system and deploy thousands of substitute teachers at a pay rate of $500 a day if teachers strike.
District spokesperson Nikki Henry told Fresnoland in an interview Wednesday night that the district has also contracted with private security companies to provide enhanced security around schools.
In a September board resolution that laid out additional emergency strike plans, the district indicated students’ grades would be given out per usual even during a work stoppage and “will not be made up or modified” after the potential strike ends.
At the district board meeting happening simultaneously Wednesday night, Superintendent Bob Nelson said that there will still be buses taking students to and from school.
The Fresno Teachers Association primarily represents the district’s teachers, social workers, and nurses. Other employees like bus drivers, who are represented by separate unions, aren’t legally allowed to participate in a “sympathy strike” due to language in their own contracts, Nelson said.
“If they are striking during their work hours,” he said, “unfortunately, they’re subjected to discipline.”
Will Fresno Unified cancel sports because of the strike?
During a strike, Henry said, most programs outside of regular school hours will be canceled and – ideally – rescheduled.
That includes anything from sports games and field trips to Local Control and Accountability Plan community meetings.
“What you typically plan for a strike of this size,” Henry said, “is (that) everything outside of the school day and after-school program would be canceled.”
The only extracurricular event the district would try to keep on the schedule would be high school sports, she added, if they “can make it work safely.”
Multiple student athletes and coaches pleaded with the school district at the board meeting Wednesday to keep games on the schedule in the event of a strike.
Hoover High School senior and girls volleyball team member Sophy Matott said it feels like they’re being used as “leverage against our own teachers.”
“Taking away our right to play out our season is truly detrimental,” she said, “especially considering the class of 2024 didn’t even have a freshman season due to COVID. Going through something that was so out of our hands is so extremely devastating.”
Hoover’s volleyball coach, Diego Tejeda, urged the school board to prioritize high school games in particular, given that scholarships and “opportunities to experience the world outside of Fresno” are on the line with playoffs coming up.
Henry said sports and other programs are affected partly because of the bandwidth of the non-teaching staff, who will “pull double duty” to help keep schools in session while thousands of educators walk out.
The district also has concerns, she added, about teachers picketing at athletic events.
“You’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of people,” at a high school football game, she said. “That’s a pretty good place to picket and to get your message heard with parents. So with emotions running so high, it’s really about the safety of the community and the safety of our students, and the capacity of our staff to take that on.”
What happened at the teachers’ strike vote?
A sea of educators in bright blue Fresno Teachers Association shirts filled the Fresno Fairgrounds’ Paul Paul Theater to the brim on Wednesday.
Several teachers and union leaders took the mic, explaining their dissatisfaction with the district’s most recent proposal to the union.
FTA President Manuel Bonilla ripped a copy of it in half to cheers from the crowd.
“We should not be ashamed,” he said, “of wanting a salary that keeps up with inflation.”
The latest offer from the district, unveiled Oct. 13, features 19% pay bumps – through a combination of salary hikes and one-time payments – and a new pathway to lifetime medical care benefits.
Union leaders say they’re holding out for a salary increase that better contends with inflation, as well as class size caps and reduction of special education caseloads.
The teachers union also takes issue with how the district plans to fund their proposed salary increases for teachers.
Nelson announced at a news conference that Fresno Unified would reduce contributions to district employees’ health care fund – which currently has $99 million in reserves – by $3,000 per person in order to pay it.
Union leaders criticize this as amounting to “robbing Peter to pay Peter,” and are concerned they’ll see cuts to their healthcare coverage down the road if the employee healthcare fund gets depleted.
Multiple teachers at Wednesday’s vote told Fresnoland they planned to vote in favor of striking.
“I almost feel like we had no choice but to get to this point,” said Sandra Atkins, a Design Science Middle College High School teacher and bargaining team member, “to say we’re going to strike, to even open a real conversation with the district. We’re not asking for the moon.”
Recently retired Union Elementary teacher Michael Vasquez came to the vote in support of his wife, who still teaches.
He said the lifetime healthcare benefits questions are a “big deal” for him and former colleagues.
“My wife and I, we’ve been very healthy. But we have folks that are in our sphere,” he said, “that have struggled with terminal illness … they would be greatly impacted.”
He also said that the level of disrespect from Fresno Unified management toward teachers is “as bad as I’ve ever seen.”
“And I’ve seen some bad stuff. I mean, I lived through the 70s, where they broke unions,” he said.
“But this is a different level. There’s a lot of angered … nasty politicking.”
What has happened in negotiations so far?
The district and FTA formally opened contract talks last November.
The union’s original proposal included multimillion-dollar investments in student well-being – such as providing free laundry service and school supplies – many of which are now off the table. The union and district instead plan to form a new decision-making committee that will discuss how best to allocate $30 million for student well-being over the next three years.
The district and union participated in mediation as well as a fact-finding hearing in early September after declaring an impasse in negotiations with the Public Employment Relations Board. The fact-finding chairperson, Don Raczka, released a report on Oct. 4, recommending a 14% raise over three years as well as a 10.5% boost in one-time payments.
The report’s recommendations on salary were nearly identical to what the district offered, aside from one additional 5.5% one-time payment the chairperson recommended for this school year. The report also noted “disrespectful behaviors” from both parties during the mediation process and called for a restoration of trust through the “Interest Based Bargaining” approach to negotiations.