What's at stake?
Thousands of Fresno Unified educators will leave classrooms and take to picket lines in California’s third-largest school district at over 70,000 students. The district plans to keep schools open with help from over 2,000 substitute teachers as well as management staff and won’t excuse absences for students who stay home.
Fresno Unified teachers plan to go on strike next week for the first time in over 40 years – and union leaders are encouraging parents to keep their kids home if no deal is reached in the next eight days.
The strike would begin Nov. 1.
Manuel Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said Tuesday that he did not know how long the strike would last. He also left the door open to the possibility of reaching a deal before the planned Nov. 1 walkout.
The strike was approved by about 93.5% of the roughly 3,700 teachers who voted, the union reported. Voting for the Fresno Unified strike kicked off at a rally last week with more than 3,000 educators at the Fresno Fairgrounds and continued through Monday afternoon.
“Fresno parents,” Bonilla said Tuesday, “you have a clear choice. Put the trust in a random babysitter that your child will be (with) during the strike, or bring this strike to a quick end and keep your kids safe at home.”
Fresno Unified Board President Veva Islas told Fresnoland in an interview Tuesday morning that, “on a personal level,” she could agree to everything the teachers are demanding – but district leaders have to weigh the proposals against factors like budget constraints and what’s feasible over time.
“I’m not against higher wages,” she said. “The question is how much can we afford? Have we proposed something that is the maximum that we can actually afford, without creating economic jeopardy for the district?”
Despite the latest offer from the district featuring 19% pay bumps – through a combination of ongoing 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.
During the strike, the district plans to keep schools “open, safe, and full of learning” for over 70,000 students in its system, a statement Tuesday afternoon said. Its plans involve deploying thousands of substitute teachers at a pay rate of $500 a day.
FUSD spokesperson Nikki Henry said that Fresno Unified had roughly 2,200 substitutes certified, finger-printed, and background-checked as of Oct. 20. They anticipated needing 200 more to cover classrooms but plan to deploy management staff to fill in the gaps.
Meanwhile, the union predicts that over 3,000 teachers who voted in favor of striking will take to picket lines next week.
What should parents know about the Fresno Unified strike?
In addition to keeping schools open during a strike, Nelson said at an Oct. 18 board meeting that buses will still take students to and from school.
The Fresno Teachers Association primarily represents the district’s teachers, social workers, and nurses. Other employees like bus drivers, represented by separate unions, aren’t legally allowed to participate in a “sympathy strike” due to language in their own contracts and could be disciplined for walking off the job, Nelson said.
Meanwhile, extracurricular activities like sports games and field trips are likely to be canceled. The district may make an exception for high school sports, Henry told Fresnoland Oct. 18, but only if they can do so safely.
Students who stay home from class during the strike will not have their absences excused, district leaders have shared.
Grades students receive during the strike will be recorded per usual and won’t be made up or modified after the fact, the district shared in September.
Why wasn’t a deal reached in time?
Bonilla said the district and FTA remain “very far apart” on the issues of salary, class size, and special education caseload reduction as of Tuesday.
“At a time when Fresno Unified has record-high revenue from Sacramento,” he said, “record-high rainy day reserves, record-high senior executive compensation and record-high payroll for consultants and PR staff, it shouldn’t be difficult to come to (a) consensus for our students.”
In its statement Tuesday, the district pushed back against FTA’s argument that the current salary increases don’t keep up with inflation.
Specifically, the district said that between 2013 and 2022, it has offered 32.7% in pay bumps to staff while inflation rose 30.2%. The district’s current offer will bring that total to 46.7% – including both ongoing and one-time payments – which is higher than the cost-of-living adjustment of 42.4% that the state offered during the same period to account for inflation.
The district also highlighted other aspects of its latest proposal Tuesday, including that it plans to add 100 classrooms across the district to reduce class sizes and offer extra pay to special education teachers who spend time outside the 8-hour work day completing students’ individualized education programs.
Islas said she wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the strike vote, given that the teachers have been “steadfast” in their demands throughout bargaining. But she wants the bargaining teams to think about what something like reducing class size actually looks like.
“I’m not sure that everybody understands what reduced classroom sizes means,” she said, “like, what it practically means, in terms of creating space and building and constructing and moving. It’s not something that’s just a flip of a switch that can happen immediately overnight.”
Islas also remains concerned about how the strike will affect students. Regarding the teachers’ appeal to parents to keep their kids home, Islas said that request is “unrealistic” in Fresno, especially for single-parent, low-income households.
The board president added that she believes that if more women had been at the bargaining table, a compromise could have been reached sooner.
“There (aren’t) enough women in representative leadership on either the Fresno Teachers Association side or the district side,” she said. “I think women are definitely much more practical and understanding about these issues, and I think … could have lent a very important voice to compromise.”
What has happened in contract talks so far?
Over the past year-and-a-half of bargaining, tensions have often been high between the district and FTA.
The district and union participated in mediation and a fact-finding hearing in early September after declaring an impasse in negotiations with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.
Don Raczka, author of the fact-finding report that followed the hearing, wrote that both parties engaged in “disrespectful behaviors” during the mediation process and called for a restoration of trust through the “Interest Based Bargaining” approach to negotiations.
Both Superintendent Bob Nelson and Bonilla have spoken to the erosion of trust on both sides leading up to the union’s strike vote.
Two days after the strike vote began, FTA filed an unfair practice charge against the district with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. Union leaders accused district administrators of intimidating teachers from participating in a strike, citing labor laws that protect their right to do so.
Bonilla said the bargaining teams were scheduled to meet with district leaders later on Tuesday.