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Fresno teachers union backs controversial federal grant

November 2, 2012 |  2:23 pm

After a marathon debate, the Fresno teachers union early Friday agreed to endorse its school district's application for a federal grant that will require controversial changes in instructor evaluations.

The Fresno Teachers Assn. became one of the few teachers unions in California to back a federal Race to the Top grant proposal by signing off on it just before 2 a.m. The $40-million grant application proposes to boost literacy skills for young students in 67 elementary schools with a blend of new technology and traditional instruction.

The Los Angeles Unified School District planned to submit its $40-million proposal without union backing, which it could not obtain, but a federal official said that omission would disqualify the application. United Teachers Los Angeles officials have said they are concerned about the grant's cost to the district. 

Many unions have also opposed the grant program because it requires that a teacher evaluation system using student test scores and other measures of academic achievement be in place by 2014. School districts in Long Beach and Glendale were among those that wanted to submit applications but could not get union support.

Eva Ruiz, Fresno teachers union president, said her 10-member executive board had a  "very heated debate" over teacher evaluations and other issues before voting to support the grant proposal. She would not divulge the vote tally but said it was not unanimous.

Both before and after the accord was announced, Ruiz said a "significant" number of teachers had voiced unease about using test scores in teacher evaluations, as required by the grant program.

"Going through the process with the district wasn't easy, and it was long,” she said. "But the executive board felt the benefits for students and teachers definitely outweighed not signing" the application.

She said the school district agreed to jointly develop the new evaluation system with teachers. Officials also agreed to provide kindergarten teachers with a classroom aide and add up to nine days of planning time for teachers from preschool through third grade to help them learn how to use new technology such as digital tablets and roll out new curriculum standards known as Common Core.

In addition, the district agreed to discuss decreasing class sizes, which have ballooned to as many as 30 students in kindergarten, and eliminating combination classes, Ruiz said.

Fresno Supt. Michael Hanson said the accord was reached because all sides put students first, worked collaboratively and recognized that teachers needed and deserved extra help. He also said the community backed the plan to boost early education.

"I am deeply gratified and thankful for the hard work our teachers do," he said.

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-- Teresa Watanabe

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