Minneapolis teacher strike runs into big budget obstacle: Mental health costs

Minneapolis teachers strike in front of the governor's residence.
Thousands of Minneapolis school teachers and support staff rallied to rally for increased funding for public education on front of the governor's residence, in St. Paul on Friday.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

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.

The biggest financial sticking point in negotiations between Minneapolis schools and striking teachers? Caseloads for the district’s mental health providers and special education teachers, Minneapolis Public Schools said Tuesday.

On Monday night, in an update posted to its website, Minneapolis Public Schools stated that the union’s funding requests exceeded the district budget by more than $100 million. Now, in response to a question from Sahan Journal, the district has clarified that the largest line item that teachers are requesting, at $70.9 million, would pay for an increase to mental health and special education support. The district is negotiating separate contracts with both teachers and educational support professionals. Funding requests for ESPs are not included in these estimates.

Greta Callahan, the teacher chapter union president, said via text message that caseloads are one of the biggest sticking points, but the union does not agree with the district’s calculations. She also blamed the district for not budging on its numbers. 

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“We continue to come down” on caseload ratios, she said. “They are not moving.”

Mental health support for students has been a top priority for striking Minneapolis educators, who say students are experiencing compounding traumas from the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, civil unrest and rising crime.

recent survey from the University of Minnesota identified growing mental health needs and fewer mental health resources in schools across the state. In the union contract, mental health support boils down to the clinical language of “caseloads” — that is, the number of students that each professional can serve.

Teachers want caps on caseloads, particularly for school counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and special education teachers. They also want every school building to have at least one full-time social worker, one full-time counselor and one full-time nurse. 

The district has agreed to require each school to have a full-time social worker, but has not agreed to a minimum staffing requirement for full-time counselors or nurses at each school. In a Tuesday evening email, the district said its latest proposal — which it described as its last, best, and final offer to teachers — includes lower caseload ratios for social workers and counselors at schools with the most needs.

In a video posted to the district’s website Tuesday afternoon, board chair Kim Ellison said that the union and district reached “general agreement” on protecting educators of color, class sizes, and “student supports,” though she did not specify which supports she meant. 

“The necessary pieces are in place for an agreement, and everyone is working to make it happen,” she said.

But no one seems to know when that agreement will happen. And on Tuesday evening, the district said its proposals and the union’s had grown even further apart: a total of $167 million.