Minneapolis educators begin their strike. What you need to know

A group of people stand holding signs.
On Feb. 23, educators with the Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers unions filed a formal notification of intent to strike at the state's Bureau of Mediation Services. Educators in both cities could strike March 8 if they don't reach contract agreements with the districts.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Updated: March 8, 12:42 p.m.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for their free newsletter to receive their stories in your inbox.

Four thousand Minneapolis educators went on strike Tuesday morning after weeks of labor mediation failed to result in a contract agreement. It marks the first time in more than half a century that Minneapolis educators have gone on strike.

On the picket line Tuesday morning, educators wearing scarves and hats in the union’s signature blue passed out handwarmers, donuts, and coffee. They sidestepped frozen puddles as they marched around their school buildings. At some schools, children joined the picket line. Upbeat music blared from stereos nearby. Passing cars honked in a steady show of support.

Minneapolis educators are negotiating for wage gains — particularly for educational support professionals — additional counselors and social workers, and class-size limits. The union is calling for an increase in these educators’ starting annual wages from $24,000 to $35,000.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, an educational support professional at Roosevelt High School, pointed to a pay gap between educational support professionals, half of whom are people of color, and teachers, most of whom are white. “Our top priority is a livable wage for ESPs,” Roberson-Moody said Monday night, “because we make school happen every single day.”

On Feb. 23, unions representing teachers and educational support professionals in both Minneapolis and St. Paul filed notifications of their intent to strike. The unions’ actions follow a resounding Feb. 17 vote to authorize a strike in both cities after months of negotiation and mediation. Districts and educators are also confronting declining enrollment and the most stressful years in many teachers’ careers.

In St. Paul, the educators union called off a prospective parallel strike after reaching a tentative agreement with the district Monday night. Educators in the two cities belong to separate unions and negotiate with different leadership, but until Monday night they remained on similar collision courses with their districts. 

Minneapolis Public Schools released a statement shortly after the union’s strike announcement Monday night. “While it is disappointing to hear this news, we know our organizations’ mutual priorities are based on our deep commitment to the education of Minneapolis students,” the district said. “MPS will remain at the mediation table non-stop in an effort to reduce the length and impact of this strike.”

Classes for the district’s 29,000 students will be canceled for the duration of a strike. School-based clinics and mental health services will continue. Beginning Wednesday, school breakfast and lunch will be available for parent pickup, and emergency childcare will be available at some schools on an extremely limited basis. The district has enrichment activities online to keep students engaged during the strike. Additional childcare resources compiled by the district can be found here.

St. Paul students will find schools open for their regularly scheduled classes Tuesday.

Collectively, the unions represent more than 8,000 educators.

So how did we get here? What do educators want? What do the superintendents have to say about it? And what does this mean for your family? We’ve got the answers.

What happens now with the educators strike? Will my kids have school?

No. Minneapolis schools have canceled classes, and the instructional time will have to be made up later.

Why did educators consider a strike?

For many teachers, this has been the most stressful year of their careers. Support staff such as substitute teachers and bus drivers are in short supply. Students’ academic and mental health needs are higher than ever, as they attempt to rebound from a long period of distance learning and isolation. Teachers have to help provide coursework to students who are quarantining with COVID-19 and spend their prep hours covering for absent colleagues.

“I think MPS has not been paying attention to the fact that we need to do things differently if we want to retain and serve the families that stay here well and also attract other families,” said Daniel Perez, a social worker at Green Central Elementary School in Minneapolis. Families and teachers need more mental health support and smaller class sizes, he said. While Green Central is better staffed than some schools, Perez said, with his caseload he is still “hanging by a thread.”

A person writes their name on a card.
Daniel Perez, a social worker at Green Central Elementary School in Minneapolis, cast his vote to authorize a strike.
Courtesy Daniel Perez

survey released Feb. 15 from the University of Minnesota shows students, teachers, and administrators throughout the state all identifying student and staff mental health as a top challenge, even as they say they are receiving less mental health support than they used to. The survey, administered in October and November, shows mental health needs at their highest levels since the pandemic began.

Educators in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have identified social-emotional support for their students as a priority.

“If we don’t get counselors, where does this leave us as a profession?” asked Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher in the Community Connected Academy program at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School. “It looks like most of the educators of color, whether they’re the ESP chapter or the teacher chapter, making up for that. Because we understand a lot of the stressors and the traumatic experiences that pertain to our students.”

“If we don’t get counselors, where does this leave us as a profession?”

- Nafeesah Muhammad, English teacher in the Community Connected Academy

While Minneapolis and St. Paul unions share many priorities, including mental health support, the dynamics are a bit different between the two districts.

What do St. Paul educators want?

Teachers hold strike signs.
Teacher Amelia Feest and other St. Paul Federation of Educators members strike on the corner of Dale and Maryland in St. Paul, Minn., on March 10, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

You may recall that St. Paul educators last went on strike in March 2020, right before COVID-19 shut down in-person learning for students across the state. Before that, they narrowly averted a strike in 2018.

The 2020 strike lasted three days before the union and district reached a deal; educators returned to prepare for pandemic learning. Some teachers and union leaders believe they left the 2020 strike’s business unfinished, and that conditions have only gotten worse.

Among them is Diedra Carlson, who currently teaches second grade for St. Paul’s online elementary school. Carlson, a Montessori-trained teacher who has taught with the district since 2003, noted that many of the demands are similar to those in 2020: smaller class sizes, sustainable mental health support in every school, full-time nurses. Now, COVID has exacerbated the problems that existed before, she said.

“We need those services even more,” Carlson said. “In fact, they’re urgent now.”

In recent years, educators have struck deals with St. Paul Public Schools on class-size caps, mental health support in schools and restorative justice practices. But now, they say, the district wants to take some of those guarantees away. Educators want to strengthen them. St. Paul educators also want a 2.5 percent pay raise; the district has proposed 1.5 percent.

What about Minneapolis?

Minneapolis educators want more staff: more counselors, psychologists, social workers and education support professionals. They also want better pay, smaller class sizes, more COVID protections and better support and retention for teachers of color.

One of the union’s major demands is a wage increase for educational support professionals. According to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, some of these educators — who are on balance much more diverse than the predominantly white teacher workforce — make as little as $24,000 per year, and often work multiple jobs. The union is asking for a salary minimum of $35,000 per year for these professionals.

They also want a 20 percent pay increase for teachers.

Jabari Browne, a first-year teacher at Sanford Middle School, worked as a special education assistant before obtaining his teacher’s license. As an educational support professional, he made less than $30,000 a year and had to work multiple jobs to support his family. Becoming a teacher meant a significant pay bump, but he still thinks about taking a second job like refereeing basketball games, “just so I can enjoy life a little more.”

A 20 percent pay raise? Walk me through the math here?

Since 2001, Minneapolis teachers have received no more than a 2 percent pay raise each year, according to union data. That totals a 42 percent pay increase since 2001. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in that same time period, the cost of living in the Twin Cities metro area has increased by 54 percent.

Teacher salaries vary based on experience and education. Yet data compiled by the Minnesota Professional Licensing and Educator Standards Board show that the average Minneapolis teacher earns $71,535 per year. The average teacher salary in St. Paul is $85,457. 

“We’ve really kind of dropped the ball on what we would consider respectable compensation for what we do,” said Edward Barlow, who teaches music at Anwatin Middle School. “And that is something that is sorely apparent when you look at the disparity between our district and other districts around the state.”

“We’ve really kind of dropped the ball on what we would consider respectable compensation for what we do.”

- Edward Barlow, Anwatin Middle School music teacher

According to data compiled by the union, based on the 2018-2019 pay schedule, Minneapolis teachers’ lifetime earnings are less than those of teachers in most neighboring districts. Minneapolis teachers’ cumulative earnings rank 15th out of 20 neighboring districts in a 20-year period, and 18th out of 20 in a 30-year period. 

Put another way, over a 30-year teaching career, a Minneapolis teacher would earn $386,000 less than a teacher in Minnetonka; $218,000 less than a teacher in Bloomington; and $139,000 less than a teacher in St. Paul.

Minneapolis Public Schools have declined to comment on these numbers.

Educators hope that increasing pay will help retain educators, especially teachers of color.

“I knew I was always going to teach in a setting where I could make the most difference,” said Barlow, who has taught in Minneapolis for 32 years. ”But I also didn’t take an oath of poverty. And when you go through the process of perfecting your craft, you go to school, you get advanced degrees, you do all these things, and then you don’t see compensation helping you to even recoup the funds that you’ve invested in yourself, that gets really demoralizing.”

Low pay can lead educators to go elsewhere — including the teachers of color the district says it wants, Barlow said.

“If you’re going to try to retain the best and brightest, you need to offer attractive compensation,” he said.

What do the superintendents say about this?

In a pair of videos released Feb. 23, both superintendents said they shared priorities with the unions, but that the union proposals were not feasible in a time of budget shortfalls and declining enrollment.

“Our educators deserve everything they are asking for in a new contract. They do,” said Joe Gothard, the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools. “At the same time, we have fewer students, fewer resources, and less money to meet those needs.”

Over the past several years, the district added nearly 170 mental health support staff, and invested an additional $22.8 million in mental health staff and services with American Rescue Plan funding, Gothard said. But the union wants even more, he said, which the district can’t afford.

Gothard indicated that the district had offered to keep existing class size caps in place, which it had previously pushed to remove. He also said the district had offered $9 million in wage increases, even as it faces a $43 million shortfall.

“We simply cannot spend more and more on staff and higher salaries in our current environment,” he said. “Now is not the time to strike. Now is the time to come together and find ways to serve our students who have already lost so much, especially our students of color and the many St. Paul families who were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“We simply cannot spend more and more on staff and higher salaries in our current environment. Now is not the time to strike.”

- St Paul superintendent Joe Gothard

Ed Graff, the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, said he’d directed staff to negotiate around the clock in order to reach an agreement before March 8 with intentions of avoiding a strike. He said the union and district shared many priorities: higher pay for education support professionals, more mental health support, more teachers from diverse backgrounds and competitive teacher wages.

“It is my responsibility, however, and the responsibility of our Board of Education, to ensure that MPS is financially solvent when today’s kindergarteners graduate, and for years to come after that,” he said.

He pointed to declining enrollment, the state’s chronic underfunding of special education and English language learner services, and the increasing costs of operating schools as reasons for the district’s budget shortfall.

“No one wants a strike,” he said. “We will be working day and night to avoid that.”

Correct. Though to be clear, the union and the district can’t agree on a lot of things at the moment. Let’s break it down.

Both the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the Minneapolis Public Schools have said they want to change the layoff process to retain teachers of color.

Layoff processes traditionally are structured to prioritize tenured teachers with seniority; the most recently hired teachers are the first to be let go. Newer teachers tend to be more diverse than senior teachers, which means this process has a disproportionate impact on teachers of color. In one high-profile case, this practice meant elementary teacher Qorsho Hassan lost her position in Burnsville shortly before being named Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Before negotiations went into mediation, MFT and MPS exchanged proposals on this issue. MFT suggested going out of seniority order for layoffs at certain racially isolated schools. The district asked the union to broaden the scope of the schools covered, and presented a counterproposal to extend the protection to all teachers who reside in Minneapolis. MFT found that proposal to be so broad as to be almost meaningless.

It’s worth noting that getting this contract language right in a way that’s legally binding can be tricky. In Qorsho’s case, the teachers union in Burnsville thought its contract protected teachers of color, but the school board determined that explicitly prioritizing certain racial groups in the hiring process could run afoul of the law and leave the district open to lawsuits.

The Advancing Equity Coalition, an advocacy group campaigning for this language change in Minneapolis, points to budget projections that show possible cuts of up to 134 Minneapolis teachers in the next school year. About 30 percent of probationary teachers are people of color, the coalition said, and could be more likely to lose their jobs in this process. 

Cuts don’t necessarily mean layoffs, however. The district could reduce its number of teachers through retirements. And under statute, probationary teachers are effectively at-will employees — meaning, the district has full discretion over which probationary teachers to bring back next year.

Still, at a Minneapolis school board meeting, Graff warned that budget shortfalls and declining enrollment made conversations about layoffs and school closures “unavoidable.”

Are layoffs the only problem affecting retention of Minneapolis teachers of color?

No. Since the 2016–2017 school year, more than 2,300 teachers have left Minneapolis Public Schools for any reason, including retirements, firings and voluntary departures. Of those, 489 have been teachers of color — more than 20 percent.

In this time, only one teacher was laid off, according to a Minneapolis Public Schools spokesperson. That individual was white.

“There seems to be a decided lack of interest in advocating to try to retain teachers of color in Minneapolis,” said Marcia Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School. “If we get laid off, we’re the ones getting laid off. Another way we lose them is they’ll leave and go to a different district that’s going to pay more. Or they leave the classroom to become admin, because that pays more.”

“There seems to be a decided lack of interest in advocating to try to retain teachers of color in Minneapolis.”

- Marcia Howard, English teacher at Roosevelt High School

That has consequences, Howard said.

“Our students suffer from it,” she said. ”And everyone knows that when you are from a marginalized community and you teach people from marginalized communities, the emotional labor is twice as much.”

A woman stands in front of a school to give a speech.
Marcia Howard speaks at an MFT rally in May 2021.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

What about COVID money from the federal government? And the state budget surplus?

At a Feb. 11 news conference, Gothard said that the district is spending federal American Rescue Plan funding on many of St. Paul Federation of Educators’ priorities. That includes millions in mental health support, training on responding to trauma, recruitment and retention of teachers and staff of color and support for multilingual learners. The process involved thousands of stakeholders, he said. He noted that the White House has identified St. Paul schools as a national example of how to spend the funding.

Yet, that funding needs to be spent by Sept. 2024, he said. “If we use it to hire permanent staff or increase wages across the board, we will not be able to sustain those investments,” he said. “Using these federal funds to fill holes now will only create larger problems down the line.”

Minneapolis Public Schools took a different approach with its federal funds, opting to use much of the balance to plug budget holes and maintain existing staff. Some experts and school board members warned this approach could cause a fiscal cliff when the funding expires. The district also used federal funds for some mental health support and COVID safety measures.

“They have over 250 million federal dollars,” said Callahan. “They are choosing not to invest this in their students. This is a choice.”

In his Feb. 23 video, Graff said that COVID-19 relief funds could help the district manage its budget shortfall, but only temporarily. “These one-time dollars cannot sustain long-term expenses like salaries and benefits for our staff,” he said. “MPS has to weigh the impact of a strike now against the impact to students and families in the future if we spend money we don’t have.”

Callahan and her counterpart in the St. Paul Federation of Educators, Leah VanDassor, also pointed out that the state currently has a $7.7 billion surplus, some of which could be used to fund education. So far, they said, they have not heard from any legislators offering to help.

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