After days of intense negotiations that included hours of talks Friday morning, Fresno Unified School District and the Fresno Teachers Association have closed the gap on many contract issues but are still divided on several key ones, district officials said Friday morning in a news conference downtown.
Those issues are salary and class sizes, said David Chavez, the district’s chief of human resources and labor relations.
FTA officials, several of whom were in a hallway near by the board room before the news conference, did not attend the news conference and did not respond to a query afterward seeking comment. Union officials said they were holding a news conference at 12:15 p.m.
During the district’s news conference, Fresno Unified School Board members and Superintendent Bob Nelson urged the district’s teachers, as well as parents and the rest of the community, to study the district’s current proposal that’s posted on the Fresno Unified website.
Watch Highlights from the Press Conference
Teachers are scheduled to take a strike authorization vote on Wednesday afternoon if there is no approved contract by then. The district plans to keep schools open if teachers strike and will pay substitute teachers $500 per day.
“I urge teachers to carefully review the district’s offer in order to make an informed decision about the strike (vote) next week,” board Clerk Susan Wittrup said. “There’s been a lot of misinformation. It’s been very confusing, and I’ve heard from many teachers that they are not clear about what the offer is. Well, now you have the information. Please read it carefully and consider it before you make that strike vote.”
Nelson said the district has lined up more than 2,100 substitute teachers who are certified, finger-printed, and ready to teach if the district’s teachers opt to walk out. And contrary to what he said are rumors being floated by the union, the district will not be “burning” through $2 million a day to employ the substitutes.
“Let me be clear. When a teacher is on strike, they don’t make their daily rate of pay,” he said. “They are not compensated in the traditional way because they’re not working during that day.
“The average Fresno Unified teacher’s daily rate of pay is about $490 … And that money, which has not been expended by the folks that are on strike, will then be directed toward the substitutes’ rate of pay for the day. We’re redirecting salary savings and not burning through additional funding in order to provide substitutes for a strike.”
Nelson said there are other rumors about the contract proposal that are untrue. He emphasized that it does not contain language referring to teacher transfers, “involuntary or otherwise,” does not tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, and does not cut healthcare benefits.
The district is proposing to reduce its per-teacher contribution to the healthcare fund from $24,000 to $21,000, Nelson said, but that’s because the fund’s reserves are robust and contain sufficient funds to cover health costs even in the event of an economic downturn. If anything, the healthcare benefit is about to improve, he said — starting Jan. 1, the district will cover 100% of employees’ healthcare costs.
Proposal No. 2
Nelson said the district is offering in the current No. 2 proposal 19% in salary increases over the three-year contract — 14% in ongoing pay raises and 5% in one-time raises. Certain staffers, such as those teaching in crowded classrooms, also would receive additional stipends.
Chavez said the district has heard the concerns from teachers about overcrowded classrooms and is doubling annual stipends from $500 to $1,000 and also lowering the threshold on class sizes that will trigger extra teacher pay.
In response to the union’s proposal of reinstating lifetime medical coverage, which the district discontinued in 2005 amid a financial crisis, Fresno Unified is offering a “bridge to Medicare,” Nelson said.
Employees who retire after 20 years and are at least age 57 1/2 will be eligible for insurance that will continue their health coverage until they turn 65 and are eligible for Medicare, Nelson said.
“If you work 20 years for us and retire at 57 and a half, you will never be without medical coverage in your life,” he said. “There is no proposal to (cut) healthcare.”
Establishing a ‘Problem-Solving Team’
One of the fact-finder’s recommendations was for both sides to engage in interest-based bargaining in the future, starting with forming committees of district and union representatives to address issues of interest. The district’s contract proposal now contains language to create a “problem-solving team” that would meet at least twice monthly and would include Nelson and FTA President Manuel Bonilla.
Nelson acknowledged that the first attempt at using interest-based bargaining on the new contract was not successful. But with additional training, it might be a viable option in contract talks, he said.
“I don’t think we ever really got there. I don’t think we arrived,” Nelson said. “One of the things probably, as far as we got, was to do some joint training around interest-based bargaining. And I think at that point — I can’t speak for the association, but the process broke down.”
Not in the Contract
The district also is prepared to invest $30 million over the three-year contract to address many of the student- and family-oriented issues and proposals that the union had presented in its original 26-page contract proposal.
Union officials have said that the district is not now adequately addressing student needs outside the classroom. FTA had presented a list of proposals such as installing washers and dryers at schools, providing pantries at schools for food and personal hygiene items, providing 24-hour mental health services for students and families, and opening school parking lots for homeless families.
Bonilla noted to union members Tuesday that opening parking lots to homeless families was an “interest” and not something the union would strike over, contrary to recent national news reports that sparked hate mail and social media postings targeting FTA.
In recognition of the union’s interest in focusing on kids’ needs outside of school, the district is proposing that Fresno Unified and union representatives team up to find solutions using the $30 million bankroll. The creation of that team and designation of funds would not be part of the contract but come from a School Board resolution, Chavez said.
Negotiations More Difficult This Time
Nelson noted that negotiations on this contract, his third as the district’s superintendent, have been difficult and at times acrimonious, similar to the contract in 2017 that nearly resulted in a strike in 2018.
It was noteworthy in 2019 when a new three-year pact was approved prior to the expiration of the old contract. At the time, officials called it “historic.”
But the financial impacts of that contract, which was due to expire in 2022 but was extended a year during the pandemic, are contributing to today’s impasse, Nelson said.
“We had a fair-share agreement. Both parties felt like, hey, you remember we talked about that at a time like how happy we were to have a salary article that was based upon the current economy,” he said.
“Nobody anticipated cost-of-living adjustments in the double-digit figures. And so the actual fair share agreement we negotiated did not net out the profit for the association that they felt they should have received.”
Nelson and Chavez said the district is preparing to continue meeting with the teachers union through the weekend and into next week to try to resolve the differences and forestall the strike authorization vote.
The last time Fresno teachers went on strike was in 1978.