FRESNO – Tensions have reached a boiling point between Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) and its educators after the district and Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) failed to reach an agreement on negotiations for items concerning teacher salaries, class sizes and medical benefits.
At a 9 a.m. news conference on Oct. 24, FTA President Manuel Bonilla announced that over 93% of teachers in FUSD voted in favor of walking out of their classrooms following failed negotiations. Bonilla told reporters the two groups would meet later in a last-ditch effort to hammer out an agreement, but if the two sides fail to reach an accord, teachers will officially go on strike on Nov. 1.
FUSD is the state’s third-largest school district. The district employs over 3,500 teachers and boasts a student enrollment of more than 74,000. According to Bonilla, FUSD authorized $3 million in funds to prepare for a strike. He said a strike will cost FUSD $2 million a day. The district has made public its plans to pay substitutes up to $500 per day.
“It’s a slap in the face to our educators,” Bonilla said. “They should be investing (that money) in the classroom.”
Bonilla accused the district of mismanagement and bad investments. He added the district should focus on spending more money inside instead of outside the classroom.
“They spent $90 million on consultants, on highly paid bureaucrats,” said Bonilla.
FTA and FUSD have been in negotiations for months over pay, class size and benefits. FTA has accused the district of negotiating in bad faith. The district has argued FUSD teachers receive pay comparable or better than teachers in other districts.
The pay scale for teachers in the district ranges from $56,000 to $102,000. Teachers at the high end of the pay scale hold a master’s degree, have completed extra units in education, and, on average, have been teaching for at least 15 years.
FTA wants an 8.2% salary increase for teachers to stay current with cost-of-living expenses. The district has proposed an 11% salary increase over three years.
FTA argues FUSD has drastically reduced what it spends on teachers’ salaries. In 2013, the district allocated 41% of the budget to salaries. FTA says the district only allocated 27% of its latest budget – $2.3 billion – to teachers’ salaries.
FUSD countered that with steep increases in pay and longevity stipends, the district pays teachers significantly more than what FTA contends.
FTA and FUSD are at loggerheads over the cap on the number of students per class. At present, there can be no more than 24 students in transitional kindergarten (TK) through grade three classes. There can be no more than 29 students in grades 4-6; 28 in grades 7-8; and 29 in high school classes. If a class size exceeds 33 students for at least half a year, the teacher has the option of having a teacher’s aide or of receiving a $2,000 salary stipend.
FTA proposes a limit of 8 students in preschool classes; 12 students in TK and kindergarten; 22 in grades 1-3; 25 in grades 4-8; and 27 in high school classes. The proposal states that before classes exceed the cap, parents have the option of moving their children to a smaller class. If the class size still exceeds the cap, then teachers will receive a $3,000 stipend each semester a class is over the cap.
FUSD said it will not change the cap on classroom size, but it will reduce the number of exceeded students that allows a teacher to either engage an aide or receive a salary stipend from 33 to 32 the number of students.
LIFETIME MEDICAL BENEFITS
FUSD discontinued lifetime medical benefits for employees in 2005; however, 300 district employees, including Superintendent Bob Nelson, continue to receive lifetime benefits.
FTA wants lifetime benefits based on 2020 hire dates. Employees who work for the district for at least 20 years would qualify for lifetime medical benefits.
Nelson argues that the FTA proposal would result in future costs that will grow by hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the press conference, Bonilla said sports follow under the FUSD’s purview.
“It’s the district’s choice to continue sports,” he said. He added that many teachers volunteer their time to assist with schools’ athletic programs.
Nelson said the district plans to keep sports programs going, particularly those schools who have teams that have qualified for playoffs in their respective sports.
“We are trying to prioritize at least high school athletics sports so they can have their playoffs and be engaged in the things they love,” Nelson said.