What Minneapolis teachers are asking for, and why the district says it can’t afford it

Minneapolis teachers walk out in front of the state Capitol.
Thousands of Minneapolis school teachers and support staff rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol on the second day of the Minneapolis teacher's strike on Wednesday. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is asking the district to limit class sizes, pay for additional mental health supports for students and increase wages for both classroom teachers and education support professionals.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Updated: 5 p.m.

More than 4,000 educators go without pay and more than 30,000 students are out of class as the strike finishes the week.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is asking the district to limit class sizes, pay for additional mental health supports for students and increase wages for both classroom teachers and education support professionals.

According to Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, Minneapolis teachers make an average of $71,535 per year. That’s almost $14,000 less than St. Paul teachers make on average.

The union has said that Minneapolis education support professionals make a starting salary of only $24,000 per year — a rate they want the district to bump up to $35,000 per year.

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Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff has said he agrees teachers and education support staff should be paid more, but he argues his district can’t afford it.

District leaders discussed their unsustainable budget problems at a board meeting late last month. They are expecting to see a nearly $22 million shortfall in their budget next year, despite the fact that they are currently using $75 million in one-time COVID relief funding to prop up their budget.

District leaders have warned that the shortfall will likely mean layoffs or school closures in the future.

“We will have to make a reduction in staff. It will mean consideration of consolidating programs and perhaps schools. These are things that we cannot avoid based on what we’re seeing with our revenue and expenditures,” Graff said at the February meeting.

Consolidating programs and schools is a step St. Paul Public Schools has already had to take. In December the St. Paul board voted to close or change six of their schools due to declining enrollment.

The Minneapolis district is also blaming budget issues, in part, on declining enrollment.

Only 58 percent of the children in Minneapolis actually attend Minneapolis Public Schools. The rest are in private, charter, open enrollment or home school. That’s a lower rate than in neighboring St. Paul, where 63 percent of K-12 students attend district schools.

For Minneapolis, recent enrollment declines started in 2017, and have continued. The district has said families are choosing charter or private schools in the city. The exodus from public schools is in part because of the pandemic. But the district also sees families moving to find lower cost housing. Many of those leaving Minneapolis are families of color.

Eric Moore, Minneapolis’ top accountability, research and equity officer, said the departing families are concerned with a lack of academic rigor and safety as well as concerns about school climate and racism. He adds they have safety concerns.

“When I look at the data, I see those external factors,” Moore said. “They’re not just leaving Minneapolis Public Schools, they’re saying that we need to partner better with the city and really address some of these fundamental issues regarding crime, safety…affordable housing. Those are major issues as a school district that we can’t do alone and it’s affecting our enrollment.”

Inflation also is hitting the district’s budget. The cost of gas for school buses, prices for supplies and food are rising.

Minneapolis administrators, like their counterparts in other Minnesota districts, say they are not getting enough federal and state money to pay for special education and English language learner programs. That underfunding amounts to a $70 million blow to Minneapolis’ budget.

Minnesota districts have been lobbying the legislature to address this shortfall for years.

The Minneapolis teacher’s union rallied at the State Capitol on Wednesday, and urged lawmakers to use budget surplus money to help schools.

Shaun Laden, the union’s education support professionals’ president has pointed to the St. Paul district, which is facing some budget challenges similar to those in Minneapolis, as evidence that the Minneapolis district should be able to meet teacher union demands. St. Paul and its union narrowly averted a walkout with a tentative deal, and said they would release details of the agreement at a later date.

“We know in Minneapolis, because they did it in St. Paul, we don’t have a budget crisis — we have a values, a priority crisis,” Laden said in a video posted online Thursday morning.

Mediation sessions are scheduled between district and union representatives on Friday and Saturday.

As the union continued their fourth day of the strike, the school district warned the gap in school time would have to be made up.

In an update on its website, Minneapolis Public Schools said its seventh and eighth grade students as well as some high school students would need to add extra instructional time to their calendars. If the strike lasts five days or less, elementary students will not need to make up instructional time. Classroom hours will be added to spring break, by reducing professional development time or by extending the end of the school year.