St. Paul teachers, district enter last scheduled talks as strike date nears

People walk out of a building
Members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators on Feb. 16 exit the Carpenters Local Union 322 in St. Paul after deciding whether or not to authorize a strike. Negotiators return to the table on Friday hoping to reach a deal and stop a March 11 walkout.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Updated 10:10 a.m.

Hoping to reach a deal on a new two-year contract and avoid a strike set for March 11, negotiators for St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers union meet Friday for what’s expected to be a marathon mediation.

While the strike threat is ratcheting up the pressure, both sides continue to talk and offer counter proposals. District leaders also recently suggested an arbitrated settlement, where both sides would abide by the decision of a third-party.

Union and district leaders say they’ve made significant progress in mediation but have yet to bridge gaps around wages and benefits. Despite a significant boost from the state last year, the district said it faces a $108 million budget shortfall in 2025 and that some of the union’s proposals would cost millions more than what it had budgeted.

Friday’s session is the last one scheduled before a potential walkout in 11 days that could cancel classes for some 33,000 students in the state’s second largest district and create cascading hardships for kids and families.

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Both sides expect mediation efforts to last through the weekend.

“We are committed to being there the entire weekend and our goal really is to settle this contract this weekend,” said Pat Pratt-Cook, the district’s top human resources executive. “A potential educators’ strike impacts not only our students, but it has significant disruption for the greater community.”

Besides canceled classes, district leaders have also warned that a strike might require extending the school year and that high school students may struggle to earn enough credits for graduation.

St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard, who was recently chosen as the next leader of the Madison, Wis., public schools, said his negotiators would offer the St. Paul Federation of Educators an option to pursue interest arbitration in the event that contract negotiations don’t move quickly enough. 

Asked about the option, St. Paul Federation of Educators President Leah VanDassor said she was “disappointed” the district had announced the idea of arbitration in a news conference instead of speaking first to the union, which represents about 3,700 teachers, educational assistants and school professionals.

“We remain committed to reaching a settlement that benefits both our students and our educators, and believe this can still be accomplished via mediation,” VanDassor said. “We look forward to our next mediation session this Friday and getting a response to our latest financial offer.”