Strike averted after St. Paul school district, teachers reach tentative agreement

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard answers questions
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard answers questions from reporters as St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, left, and St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Nick Faber listen inside of Galtier Elementary in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 8:26 p.m. | Posted: 6:01 a.m.

St. Paul Public Schools and teachers union leaders have reached a tentative contract agreement, averting a Tuesday strike. The agreement covers labor contracts through 2019.

The agreement came after a 13-hour mediation session Sunday. All strike planning activities have been canceled.

"We are proud to have settled a fair contract that will improve our public schools for all of our students. We look forward to continuing the fight for fully-funded, racially equitable schools in the weeks and months ahead," said Nick Faber, president of the union, in a statement.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the school district began contract talks in September. The union authorized a strike at the beginning of February, and set the Tuesday strike date last week.

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The teachers union represents 3,800 employees and includes three bargaining groups: teachers, educational assistants and a group of other employees known as "school and community service professionals" that includes cultural specialists and family liaisons. Teachers are by far the largest group, with about 3,200 members.

The uncertainty over the weekend left many parents scrambling to prepare for the possibility of closed schools. Parents told MPR News about plans to take their children to work, call in relatives for child care or work from home. If a strike had extended past Wednesday, the St. Paul school district had plans to offer all-day care for elementary students and meals for all students.

Parent Michael Murray said he had planned to rotate childcare responsibilities with friends and family in case of a strike. Murray has three children at St. Paul's Expo Elementary School.

"I think it's wonderful they were able to settle it before the school week started, because they can go into the week both the teachers and the students knowing that there is going to be school and nobody has to be stressed about what's going to happen tomorrow," he said.

A press conference inside of Galtier Elementary School
Community members and the media watch a press conference about the negotiations between St. Paul Public School and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers inside of Galtier Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Superintendent Joe Gothard said he was relieved and happy to have reached an agreement with the union.

"Both the District and the Union feel passionately that our students deserve the best education we can give them," Gothard said in a statement. "This is a strong step in that direction."

Sticking points in contract negotiations included class sizes, support staffing and funding for a "restorative practices" discipline approach. District officials countered union proposals saying the district couldn't afford them. St. Paul faces a $23 million budget deficit this year.

Details of the agreement are not yet public, but here's what we know:

What happened in Sunday night mediation

Union and school district negotiators resolved their differences after a 13-hour mediation session. It was their 11th mediation session in contract talks that started in September.

St. Paul teachers had pushed the district to lower class sizes, increase support staffing and increase funding for "restorative practices" discipline. District officials had countered that the district couldn't afford the union proposals.

What we know about the agreement

St. Paul schools superintendent Joe Gothard said the contract will not add to the district's deficit and stays within budget parameters the district established for negotiations. The district had budgeted about two million dollars for contract costs, or the equivalent of a one percent teacher salary increase. It's not clear whether the district plans to move funds from other areas to pay for any union proposals in the agreement.

"We know that we have limited resources, and we have great needs, but the best part — we have incredible professionals who when they're given the right resources can do amazing things ... Excuses aren't made. Advocacy and excuses are two different things," Gothard said at a Monday afternoon news conference.

Gothard and union officials declined to discuss details of the agreement until it is presented to union members.

Union president Nick Faber said now that the contract is settled, both sides will work together to increase revenue for the St. Paul school district with plans to lobby legislators and recruit new families to St. Paul schools.

"We have to continue as activists who know what our school district needs and deserves," Faber said.

Union leaders had pushed the district to work with teachers to seek school funding from local corporations. After a mediation session last week, district leaders said they agreed to that collaboration.

"We won supports for our students, especially our English Learners and our students who receive Special Education services. We defended our class size language and strengthened the commitment to Restorative Practices," the union said in an email to members.

What comes next

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers executive board approved the tentative agreements Monday, a teachers union spokesperson said. It will now go to union members for a vote, followed by a vote by the St. Paul school board.