Long-term relationships gave two Fresno Pacific University faculty the opportunity to help teachers and a school district end a drawn-out and contentious negotiation and avoid what could have been the system’s first strike in 40 years.
Linda Hoff, Ph.D., head of the Teacher Education Program Division, and Larry Dunn, Ph.D., professor of peacemaking and conflict studies, held directed conversations with members of the Fresno Unified School District Board of Education and the Fresno Teachers Association, not to address bargaining points but to improve overall communication.
“I had the friendships and Larry knew what he was doing,” Hoff said with a smile. She has gotten to know people on both sides of the negotiation in various ways during her 22 years at FPU and before that as a public school educator.
Though the board and the association were arguing the specifics of a contract, both sides wanted to look further. “Everybody agreed the thing to discuss was their long-term relationship,” Dunn said.
FUSD is the fourth largest school district in California, serving 73,000 students and employing 4,000 teachers. The district’s last strike was in 1978 and lasted eight days. FTA members had voted to authorize a strike October 3, 2017, which would have started in January 2018. The union and the board had also agreed to hear a third-party recommendation.
While contract negotiations lasted almost 500 days and involved two district superintendents, the animosity was years in the making. By the time Hoff and Dunn came on the scene in December 2017 at the request of the FTA, both sides were talking, but neither was listening. Instead, everyone was hearing their own assumptions. “We’d try to figure out what people meant when they said something. We needed to slow down and be authentic with one another,” said FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson.
“We were really stuck with each other,” agreed Tish Rice, a math teacher at Fresno High School and president of the FTA. “With the help of Linda and Larry we were able to move past the idea that each side was entrenched.”
Meeting in small groups away from the negotiation site was the first step. “Larry and Linda created a safe space where we could listen to each other,” Rice said.
People had space to vent, to understand each other’s perceptions, to correct those perceptions and to express hurt, according to Manual Bonilla, who earned his BA from FPU in 2010 and his teacher credential in 2011. He teaches video production and broadcasting at McLane High School and served on the FTA bargaining team. “There were moments of tension and release of tension,” he said.
There was also Hoff’s secret weapon—a big basket of chocolate. “When things got difficult, Linda would say, ‘Let’s have another piece of chocolate’,” Dunn said.
The sweets symbolized Hoff’s and Dunn’s role in bringing both sides together. “We just kept trying to say, ‘We’re in this with you, and that we love you’,” Hoff said.
And it worked. “We watched people apologize to each other for things they had said and done, and accept their apologies,” Dunn said.
The ending could have been a movie: in the wee hours of January 17, 2018, after an all-night bargaining session and one day before the release of the third-party plan—which the district had agreed to abide by no matter what it said, but that the teachers had not—the two groups signed an agreement and gave a bleary-eyed but happy press conference. On February 6, FTA members voted 2,001-157 to approve; the board followed the next day with a 6-1 vote.
Both sides are aware it took 18 months to get a 15-month contract. This just increases the hope and belief of all involved that the trust nurtured by Hoff and Dunn will grow, so what started as a last-ditch effort will become a new relationship that benefits everyone, especially students and their families. The two FPU faculty have agreed to keep meeting with teachers and the district.
“We need to continue those meetings to build those skills both sides need to move forward collaboratively,” Bonilla said.
“It’s small steps in the right direction,” Rice said.
“We both love the same baby,” Nelson said of the district and its students. “We’re behaving in a different and better way.”
More on this story at:
FUSD media conference (16:39 and 20:57) vimeo.com/251574156
GV Wire gvwire.com/2018/01/17/it-took-all-hands-on-deck-to-avoid-fresno-unified-teachers-strike/
ABC 30 abc30.com/education/fta-and-fresno-unified-tentative-agreement-stops-strike-from-happening/2961922/
Fresno Bee fresnobee.com/news/local/education/article195238774.html