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Fresno Unified offers ‘historic’ benefits to teachers union. Why there’s still no deal

More than a thousand members of the Fresno Teachers Association rallied in late May and vowed to strike if the union and school district fail to agree to a contract by Sept. 29, 2023.
Fresno Teachers Association via Edsource
More than a thousand members of the Fresno Teachers Association rallied in late May and vowed to strike if the union and school district fail to agree to a contract by Sept. 29, 2023.

Fresno Unified and the district's teacher's union still don't have a deal and remain at odds over how much progress has been made in the days leading up to the union's strike vote this week.

The district unveiled its second package proposal at a news conference Friday and endeavored to dispel what the district described as "misinformation" about what that package includes.

The headliners in this proposal include 19% in salary increases for teachers through a combination of ongoing and one-time payments over the next three years, plus a new medical benefits program that Superintendent Bob Nelson said guarantees healthcare coverage for longtime employees.

"If you work for us for 20 years and you retire," he said, "you will never be without medical coverage."

Nelson also shared plans to decrease class size ratios based on grade level and provide stipends to teachers whose classes exceed those ratios.

But the teacher's union held a rival news conference just outside Fresno Unified headquarters minutes later and said that while some progress has been made, they're still "worlds apart" in a few key areas ahead of Wednesday's Fresno teachers strike vote.

The union's core issues include introducing class size caps instead of ratios and reducing special education caseloads. The union also said the district's salary proposals would fail to offset inflation.

"In my time in the classroom, I've seen many students like Superintendent Nelson," said FTA President Manuel Bonilla. "They spend their entire school year failing to do their assignments, doing poorly on their tests, and at the end of the school year … they come up and ask how much extra credit they could do to get their F to an A+."

"Unfortunately for Superintendent Nelson," Bonilla said, "he hasn't done much to get that failed negotiation grade up to an A+ for our students and for our educators."

Both sides said they'll continue to meet to try to reach a deal beyond Wednesday's strike vote at the Fresno Fairgrounds, where Bonilla expects thousands of teachers to cast their ballots.

What kind of boosts to salary and benefits are in the district's latest proposal?

The district's proposed 19% salary increase over three years breaks down into an 8.5% raise this year, 3% next year, and 2.5% the following year. In addition, teachers would receive a 2.5% one-time payment next year and the following year.

Nelson said the proposed contract would bring the average teacher salary up to $103,000.

However, Bonilla voiced concerns about where the money for the salary increases would come from. The district proposes to reduce its contribution to the health care fund by $3,000 per employee – which is not a concern, Nelson said, given the ample $99 million in reserves for that fund right now and projections that number will double by 2026.

That amounts to "robbing Peter to pay Peter," in Bonilla's view. He told Fresnoland that if those funds get depleted to a certain point, employees will either see an increase in their premiums or get reduced coverage.

"They're making employees pay for their own raise," he said, "out of their own health fund."

Meanwhile, he added, "they get to hoard money in their reserve and spend on consultants and all these other things."

Nelson also announced a new proposed program for teachers called "Bridge to Medicare," which he said achieves the "exact same goal" of lifetime benefits.

Patrick Jensen, FUSD's chief financial officer, explained in an interview following the news conference that the proposal offers employees at or above age 57-and-a-half who have worked for the district for 20 years gap coverage for seven-and-a-half years after they retire.

Once a retiree becomes eligible for Medicare at age 65, he added, the new program offers a coinsurance plan to cover the expenses that Medicare doesn't.

"The intent is that as one transitions from active employment to pre-Medicare retirement to Medicare retirement," he said, "that by maintaining the employee's contribution, they have continuous access to insurance from retirement onward."

The union included resetting lifetime health care benefits in their original draft proposals for the district last April, which sparked a backlash from trustees. The district did away with lifetime benefits in 2005 after deeming them fiscally unsustainable.

The difference is that teachers didn't pay into Medicare back then. That left the district to cover 100% of the lifetime benefits, making it "cost-prohibitive," Jensen said.

As Fresno teachers strike looms, what's still on the table?

The district also spelled out a proposal to "incrementally lower" class size ratios and hold themselves fiscally accountable to doing so.

Specifically, by the 2025-26 school year, the district proposes:

  • For kindergarten through third grade, where the student-to-teacher ratio is 24 to one, teachers receive a stipend if their class has more than 27 students.
  • For fourth through sixth grade, where the ratio is 29 to one, teachers receive a stipend if their class has more than 31 students.
  • For seventh through eighth grade, where the ratio is 28 to one, teachers receive a stipend if their class has more than 34 students.
  • For ninth through twelfth grade, where the ratio is 29 to one, teachers receive a stipend if their class has more than 35 students.

The union has advocated not for ratios but, instead, stricter class size caps that would serve as maximums and discourage the district from overburdening teachers.

As for the union's highest-profile multimillion-dollar student-related investments included in their previous proposals, those are off the table, at least as far as the teachers' contract goes.

Instead, the district plans to form a joint decision-making body of district leaders and teachers to weigh how best to invest $30 million over the next three years in student-related investments, district leaders said.

"The idea is that this would allow management and labor to jointly determine the use of those funds," Jensen said, "giving our teachers more of a say in the decision-making processes of the district."

Bonilla told Fresnoland that FTA is "comfortable" with that approach to student-related investments.

Trustees weigh in on averting a Fresno teachers strike vote

School board trustees joined Nelson on Friday, urging teachers to accept the district's package.

"I believe this is a historic proposal," said Board Clerk Susan Wittrup, "for a healthy pay increase and health benefits like we've never seen before in Fresno Unified."

Board President Veva Islas thanked the teachers union for the proposals it brought to the table and emphasized that the district's response is meant to "retain and recruit the best possible teachers for this district."

"I'm proud of our labor partners because they have brought forward some incredible ideas for student support," she said, "which we have already been adopting and that we will continue to scale and implement."

Trustee Claudia Cazares voiced her hopes that the union and district can come to an agreement before the strike vote Wednesday.

"Of any school board," she said, "this is the school board that is listening to our teachers."

"That is why you see a Bridge to Medicare-slash-lifetime-healthcare-benefits. That is why you see an eight-and-a-half percent increase in your pay raise," she added. "That is why we're trying to come into accordance on classroom sizes because we care what you say."

How we got to a Fresno teachers strike vote

The union and FUSD exchanged their bargaining interests back in November 2022.

The union delivered their last, best, and final offer in May after rallying downtown. The unions' final offer was nearly identical to their November proposals.

The union also gave the district a deadline of Sept. 29 to reach a deal, vowing to conduct a strike authorization vote in October otherwise.

In mid-September, after participating in fact-finding before the Public Employment Relations Board, the district laid out plans in the event of a potential strike. The school board passed a resolution authorizing Nelson to pay emergency substitutes up to $500 a day in the event of a work stoppage, among other measures.

The parties ultimately blew past the end-of-September deadline, after which FTA told Fresnoland a Fresno teachers strike more likely than not.

Earlier this month, the district and union received the PERB fact-finding, with recommendations on how to reach a compromise between the two parties' proposals from a third-party mediator.

The district declined to share a copy with Fresnoland, citing a 10-day disclosure rule. Bonilla said the union would have to consult with its legal team before sharing the report.

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.