St. Paul teachers union, district remain on track for strike

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Teachers picket outside Adams Spanish Immersion School.
Teachers picket outside Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul Feb. 26, 2020.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News File

St. Paul teachers union and district leaders have been trying to negotiate a contract since May of last year. But last month frustrated union members voted for a strike and set the date for March 10.

Among dozens of proposals, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, representing 3,500 members, is asking the district to give every building a fully-staffed mental health team and additional multilingual interpreters. They're also asking for better pay and benefits for their members.

Annaka Larson, a first-grade teacher at Wellstone Elementary, said the mental health component of her union's negotiations is critical.

"A kid who is having some big feelings or dealing with something hard that happened at their home last night — what they need is to sit down and have 10 quiet minutes with a really trusted adult,” Larson said. “When we don't have enough adults around, I can't do that for them because there's 20 other kids in the class."

Mental health problems and thoughts of suicide are on the rise for young people nationwide. A recent statewide survey found Minnesota students are seeing significant declines in mental and emotional well-being.

But St. Paul Schools superintendent Joe Gothard said the district, which serves approximately 37,000 students, just doesn't have the money to give teachers what they're asking for.

Joe Gothard
Joe Gothard.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

"The last time the state adjusted state aid to school districts to match inflation was 2003. Since that time we've seen a gap grow to $640 per student,” Gothard said. “In real dollars, this would add $25 million in revenue to St. Paul Public Schools. $25 million each year had that amount been adjusted with inflation."

The district has lost close to 2,000 students over the last four years and has struggled with a lack of federal funding for legally-required special education services.

St. Paul isn't alone in its budget woes. According to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, the majority of its members are projecting budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year. St. Paul predicts a nearly $10 million shortfall for next year.

St. Paul educators lead the nation in a strategy of using their contract negotiations as a lever to not just get better pay for themselves, but to make their schools a better place for their communities, said Lesley Lavery, an associate professor at Macalester College who studies education.

"Teachers are continuing their strategy of bargaining for the common good which they started about a decade ago,” Lavery said. “They're trying to listen to community members and listen to teachers' concerns on the theory that teachers are working most closely with students.”

But Lavery also said the district is stuck in a hard place when it is underfunded and required to stick to a budget. But the teachers are still pushing for more.

"The teachers are saying we can't be stuck in that trade-off mentality — we need to get more money from the state and the federal government because if we keep making these trade-offs we're going to not satisfy families and we're going to lose more families,” Lavery said. “And that's the real reality that both teachers and the district are aware of."

The union has also argued the district could put more money towards staff who work directly with students instead of district-level positions.

Mary Schmidt, a single mom who works retail, worries about being able to keep her job and pay for extra child care for two kids if school is cancelled. But she supports the teacher's union.

"I really feel strongly that the teachers aren't paid enough and that they don't have the resources and support that they need to fully do their job,” Schmidt said. “I also think that the district's probably doing the best that they think they can do. It's a larger issue that has to be taken care of at the ballot box and legislation because if we're not giving the school the funding that they need, this is just going to keep happening."

With only a few days of negotiating left, both the union and the district say they're still far away from reaching an agreement. If they walk out Tuesday, it will be the first teachers’ strike in St. Paul since 1946.

Matt Sepic contributed reporting for this story.

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