St. Paul teachers OK a possible strike as contract talks continue

St. Paul educators rally on day of strike.
St. Paul educators rally at Global Arts Plus-Upper Campus on the first day of their three-day strike in 2020. Union members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators voted Thursday to authorize a strike this year against the district.
Nina Moini | MPR News file

Updated Feb. 16, 9:32 a.m. | Posted Feb. 15, 11:40 p.m.

Members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators on Thursday voted to authorize a strike against the St. Paul Public Schools, opening the door to a possible walkout if the union and the state’s second largest district can’t reach a deal.

Leaders of the union representing about 3,700 teachers, educational assistants and school professionals, backed the strike vote last week.

With mediation still underway, it’s not clear exactly when union members could potentially strike. State law requires the union give the district at least 10 days notice before the first day of a strike. The union late Thursday did not announce a date for a possible walkout, saying that would come later “if necessary.” The union said more than 90 percent of those voting agreed to authorize a strike.

In a statement Friday morning, the district said the main unresolved issues are tied to “wages, health insurance, and other proposals that have significant costs” and that the district still faced a $108 million budget shortfall for next year.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Officials expressed hope a deal could still happen without a strike, noting that the union and district have been working in mediated bargaining sessions and that two more are set for Feb. 23 and March 1.

Leah VanDassor, the union president, said the sides remained far apart after five mediation sessions.

“Knowing that the district received a lot of extra funding this year from the state, and then turning around and receiving virtually the same exact offer we’ve gotten every two years for eight, ten years is very frustrating for us,” VanDassor said. “People are really fired up around this. People are fed up with just not seeing the changes that need to be made in our classrooms.”

Like many teachers groups in the state, St. Paul educators have been working without a contract since July of last year. Teachers came close to a strike during the last bargaining cycle of 2022 before reaching a deal with the district. 

In 2020, union members participated in a three-day strike before reaching a deal.

Among its priorities this year, the union said it’s seeking more staff for mental health teams in every building, increased pay, lower health insurance costs and more help for educators working with students who have special needs. 

In its statement Friday, the district that despite a big boost in state funding in the last legislative session, the district was facing a budget hole due to years of declining enrollment, the end of COVID-19 relief money and other costs.

St. Paul Public Schools received about $54 million in new state revenue this school year but in earlier statements the district said it would still need to withdraw some $34 million from its reserve funds to cover costs and also make “substantial budget cuts” with covid relief money expiring.

According to Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, just over 60 percent of the 328 local unions negotiating contracts with their districts have reached agreements, the slowest pace of settlements in 20 years.

Many districts, though, are managing to resolve contracts. In Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, the teachers union recently reached an agreement. Union members voted on Wednesday to ratify it.