Clovis · Education · Highlight

Clovis Unified teachers eye historic change: forming a union

A group of Clovis Unified educators are pushing for the district’s 2,100 plus teachers, psychologists, itinerant specialists, counselors and other educators to unionize. 

It would serve as an historic break from the high-achieving school district. Clovis Unified is the state’s largest school district whose teachers are not members of a union.

The group, known as the Association of Clovis Educators (ACE), launched a campaign and a website on Monday to push for unionization, a culmination of a project that has been several months in the making. 

“Following years of district decision-making that have excluded educators and classroom needs as well as concerns that peaked during the pandemic, a large and diverse group of Clovis educators are launching a petition drive to form a union,” ACE said in a statement. 

Union backers feel that the district has not adequately included educators in key decisions. 

“Though many of our concerns have been building for years, a mismanaged school reopening during this pandemic has shown us that district decision-making is broken and does not value all students equally,” said Kristin Heimerdinger, a member of the ACE Organizing Committee, in a statement. “Educators need a meaningful seat at the table and we believe a union is the best way to ensure a strong future for our students and schools for years to come.” 

Heimerdinger, a teacher at Buchanan High School, told The Sun that the push for unionization is not based on decisions that Clovis Unified did or did not make over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Rather, it has everything to do with how those decisions were made,” Heimerdinger said. “And teachers and other educators in the district don’t feel like we had an opportunity to provide meaningful input, and that our perspective was valued or considered.” 

At the center of the unionization push is Clovis Unified’s current educator representation body: Faculty Senate.  

Faculty Senate advocates on behalf of teachers to the district regarding policy making, procedures and expenditures. 

Educators at each school site nominates and votes for one teacher to serve as a Faculty Senator. 

Heimerdinger and other union advocates see Faculty Senate as a weak body that fails to represent the teachers. 

“Faculty Senate is obviously our current representative body, but ultimately, Faculty Senate does not have the force of law behind it. And anything that Faculty Senate would advocate for would only ever come to fruition by the goodwill of district administration,” Heimerdinger said. 

“The Faculty Senate doesn’t have the ability to negotiate with the district administration, and it is definitely true that during COVID we were not well represented by our Faculty Senate. But I would add to that, neither was the district seeking input from Faculty Senate. I think that’s a two-way street.” 

The ACE Organizing Committee is currently working to drum up union support and collect signatures in the hope of pushing through the process by the end of the school year. 

“I want to be clear that those of us doing this work do not hate our district, and we do not want to see our district fail,” Heimerdinger said. “We are doing this work in order to make sure that the stated values of the district are actually the lived values, and that we have a formal process in place to make sure that we are able to improve teaching and learning conditions for all students. So it really is about trying to meet the needs about all of our student populations.” 

On the other hand, another group of Clovis Unified educators are pushing back against ACE. 

A competing group, dubbed the Clovis Teachers for Clovis, launched a website aiming to educate teachers on the impact unionization will have on the district .

The group stands by the long-standing Faculty Senate model as being a fully capable representative body.

“We want to be transparent and honest with all of our colleagues,” the website reads. “We know what a union can do to our district and that is one of the shared concerns that unites us. The other, is a shared belief that the Faculty Senate can be just as powerful and more beneficial to all teachers than a union. We believe it is our task to ensure we have a strong voice in the Faculty Senate to make sure we preserve what it means to work at a Clovis Unified school; not only for teachers but students as well.” 

Joni Sumter – a Clovis High School teacher and an organizer of Clovis Teachers for Teachers – told The Sun that faculty opposed to unionization are trying to preserve the “unparalleled” teamwork that gives students opportunities that they would not otherwise have in other school districts. 

“We’re trying to preserve the ability to not have conflict at the center of every goal that we strive for,” Sumter said. “A them versus us mentality – somebody outside of our district who truly doesn’t understand how our district runs because their job is to be the union. They don’t know what our kids need and what our teachers need. All they know is how to create a legalized way of arguing.” 

Sumter argued that union dues will end up in the pockets of political campaigns at the state and national level. 

“Their job is not to do what’s best for kids,” Sumter said. “Their job is to be the union. It’s our job to do what’s best for kids, and at every level in this district, that’s what we’ve done – all these years that’s what we’ve done.” 

One notable impact teachers unions have had over the course of the pandemic has been regarding the issue of reopening schools and bringing students back to campus. 

Fresno Unified School District had to strike a deal with the Fresno Teachers Association to reopen schools and return teachers and students to the classroom. Fresno Unified officially reopened on Tuesday. 

In February, Clovis Unified – which did not have a union to deal with – had already returned over 21,000 students to campus, about half of the district. 

“Nobody claims that increasing anxiety, increasing suicide attempts, increasing depression, increasing drug use, increasing gang membership – nobody’s making the claim that that’s what’s best for the kids, and all of those things are what’s happening as a result of kids not being in the classroom,” Sumter said. 

“So to look at those two competing views – Clovis wants to do what’s best for kids, and the union is basically advocating for kids to stay out of school longer – those claims are contrary to one another.” 

Clovis Unified responds

Given the nature of the topic, Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants was unable to directly address the district’s thoughts on unionization, but she did provide the following comments: 

“In Clovis Unified, one of our foundational values really is to provide every employee a voice in decisions that are made at every level of our organization – the individual classroom level to employee compensation, benefits and everything in between. And Faculty Senate has for decades been a self-represented body of our teachers, and the administration has worked with them on these mutually beneficial things for our employees. 

“We’ve always been a district that’s characterized by an always open door policy between employees and district leaders constantly looking for ways to work together as a team toward solutions that benefit our students and also support each member of our team. And during the pandemic, those traditions of collaborations, finding win-win solutions, really has been challenged, and we recognize that because of the sharply-divided views that are held on the subject within our greater community and among our own employee teams. 

“We’re aware that there are groups currently working both toward and against the possibility of a teachers union in Clovis Unified. We respect that dialogue. We respect their ability to have those conversations. We also are just very very committed to continuing our traditions of being transparent, being open, having our employee groups involved in decision making, and meeting our strategic plan goal of hiring, developing, sustaining, valuing a high quality, diverse workforce. 

“We will continue to have that open door policy for anyone who has any questions about how decisions are made in Clovis Unified, what questions they might have about the operational decisions that have been made during COVID. Every one of our employees has that option to talk to us. I know our superintendent has spent hours and hours and hours with employees who had questions and talking to them directly, and we want to continue that tradition in being able to have that environment.” 

Daniel Gligich
Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.