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As Possible Strike Looms, Fresno Unified And Teachers' Union Still At Odds

Earlier this month the Fresno Teachers Association voted to authorize a strike. They have been bargaining with the Fresno Unified School district for over a year. Today both groups met for a marathon bargaining session. Laura Tsutsui reports on what the groups are hoping for, and how some parents feel about the potential for a strike.

The district and FTA have been bargaining about issues including teacher compensation, school safety and class size. The FTA has put eighteen articles on the table. The district has said it’s making concessions in many of these areas, but the two sides are still at odds.

"What are we looking for? We’re looking for systemic change, holistic change. Either things are good for students or they’re not," says Manuel Bonilla, a teacher at McLane High School. He's also a volunteer member of the FTA’s bargaining team.

Credit Laura Tsutsui / KVPR
Manuel Bonilla is a teacher at McLane High School and volunteer member of the FTA bargaining team.

At this time, the FTA and district have moved to the fact-finding phase of the bargaining process. A fact-finding panel is scheduled to convene early next month and review both groups’ proposals, then issue a report of their findings. If an agreement is still not reached, then the FTA can strike.

"We do not, teachers do not want to strike. The district is pushing us down this road because they refuse to come into the bargaining table, to really have discussion and not just have discussion, but take action to improve our classrooms," says Bonilla. 

Part of what has made the bargaining process difficult is that the FTA claims the district is being untruthful about how much the current teacher salaries in Fresno are, compared to other districts.

Superintendent Bob Nelson hopes the fact-finding session will provide an independent voice on the accuracy of those claims.

"Fact finding is designed to do exactly that, strip away all the rhetoric and all of the hype that might be associated around any of the situation at hand," says Nelson.

The district is committed to implementing any major recommendations from fact-finding. So far, the union is opposed to doing the same.

"If that goes against the district and there’s really money there, that somehow we were untruthful about, if that’s the perception then hey. We’ll turn around and we’ll make that a part of our offer," says Nelson.

Dr. Thomas Holyoke is a professor of political science at Fresno State. Holyoke says that while both sides share the goal of educating students, the main division is over the approach and priority of resources.

"My guess is that we’re seeing a lot of posturing now by both sides. And we’re at a point where I think both sides are trying to maneuver for maximum advantage," says Holyoke.

Holyoke says one thing that makes a teacher’s strike different from other labor unions is it directly affects the lives of children.

"When teachers strike that means education of children is not going on. And unfortunately, the longer a strike goes on, the more children actually do get hurt. Because they’re not being educated, or they’re not being well-educated," says Holyoke.

The school board passed an emergency resolution this week that gives the superintendent special tools in the event of a strike, like the ability to recruit and potentially pay more than usual to substitute teachers.

Nelson says it’s a cautionary measure.

"The resolution is really a matter of course; it’s kind of an equal and opposite response to a vote on behalf of the association to strike. And I think this is the board’s response to say we’re going to keep our schools open, says Nelson.

So, how do parents feel that teachers might be leaving the classroom for a strike?

Deanna Andersen, a Hamilton K-8 Elementary School parent, says that she wants to support the teachers. She’s considering keeping her daughter home in a strike.

"She has had perfect attendance since first grade. It would really stink for her to miss it, but to support the teachers, I would rather her be at home because they’re not gonna learn anything from a sub," says Andersen.

Karra Gadberry is also a Hamilton Elementary parent.

Gadberry isn’t too worried about the strike, because, she says, the teachers are fighting to improve the education of their kids.

"I don’t think there’s going to be a big problem because they’re not going to just leave us in the lurch because they’re doing this because they love our kids so much," says Gadberry.

Today’s marathon bargaining session takes place a week before the fact-finding panel will convene on November sixth and seventh.

It’s possible that a tentative agreement is reached before then, and both groups are cautiously optimistic. 

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.