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Faced with possible strikes, schools and teachers differ on path to stability in Minneapolis, St. Paul

Educators and administrators in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts all say they are determined to find stability after two of the most turbulent years students and staff have ever seen.

But the path to stability is proving hard to find.

After months of increasingly tense contract negotiations, unions representing teachers and support staff in both districts voted last week to authorize strikes, if necessary. If unions choose to go this route, they must give school districts 10 days notice.

“We tried everything else,” said Greta Callahan, president of the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “A strike is a last resort, and we really hope that our leaders will do the right thing for our children, because all of this can be avoided.”

Changes to and from remote learning, widespread staffing shortages, and rising student mental health and behavioral issues have overworked and stressed teachers in every corner of the state. Union leaders say teachers need more help to meet student needs and higher salaries to ensure educators come to schools and stay there. They point to federal relief funding and the state’s $7.7 billion surplus as ways to fund the demands.

But district leaders say requests are not coming in on budget, especially amid plummeting enrollment. Fewer students means less state funding for schools, and federal relief money comes with expiration dates and recommendations against spending it on costs that would last longer than the due date. expiration of funds.

At a news conference this month, St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard highlighted the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and other events that have hurt young people.

“Now more than ever, our community needs to come together and support each other,” he said.

There is still time to agree: mediation sessions in both districts are scheduled for the beginning of this week.

Both unions are pushing for additional mental health support for students, smaller class sizes and measures – including higher salaries – to help recruit and retain educators. Salaries and the addition of student mental health teams within schools have proven to be sticking points in the 2020 negotiations at St. Paul.

“We have to get to this point before [district leaders] take what we say seriously,” said Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators. “This trend is getting a bit tiring, and we would like to be able to finish this without having to go on strike.

The relationship between the Minneapolis Teachers Union and the district has been strained throughout the pandemic. In January 2021, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission and received a temporary restraining order from the court to allow certain staff members to work at distance.

The Minneapolis conference has rallied to raise the starting salary for education support professionals from $24,000 to $35,000 and increase teacher salaries to compete with surrounding districts. Nearly 650 teachers, including 120 teachers of color, have left the district in the past year and a half, Callahan said.

“It creates unstable conditions,” she said.

More than 90% of Minneapolis teacher education and teacher education support professionals voted last week with 98% and 97%, respectively, in favor of a potential strike.

“Our members have received a clear message that now is the time to invest in our hourly workers,” said Shaun Laden, president of the union’s education support professionals section. “We need to make sure people can afford to stay in [the jobs.]”

On Monday, Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff sent a letter to the families saying the union’s proposals were “not fiscally feasible” and represented a 54% increase over their current base salaries.

In a statement Friday, the district said it had “shared values” with the union and requested additional mediation sessions beyond the three that were scheduled with the union.

Graff’s letter to parents stated that in the event of a strike, classes would be canceled and the school year might have to be extended.

“I want to take this moment to acknowledge the uncertainty we may all feel in the wake of” a potential strike, Graff wrote.

Kelly Jackson, president of the North Community High School PTA, said parents were concerned about what a strike would mean for student safety and access to school lunches. And concern over safety, she said, has only increased since Deshaun Hill, a 15-year-old student from the northern community, was shot and killed a few blocks from the school this month.

“I think our kids and our families in North Minneapolis have been through enough and now there’s this extra piece of a possible strike,” Jackson said.

The PTA supports the teachers’ union and the issues they raise, especially around raising salaries for support staff, said Leah Harp, the group’s treasurer. But the potential strike has them scrambling to make a plan for where students might be if classes are canceled.

In Saint-Paul, more than 78% of the Federation of Saint-Paul educators voted in favor of the strike. Nearly two-thirds of some 3,680 members cast their ballots on Thursday, including teachers, teaching assistants and school and community service professionals.

The union is calling for a fully staffed mental health team in every building as well as smaller class sizes, more support staff for students with special needs and higher salaries to attract teachers to the district.

Gothard said at the press conference this month that the district invested in support staff after the 2020 negotiations and used federal relief money to pay “most of the priorities we’re being asked to do.” finance”. Among those priorities were additional school counselors and social workers, as well as efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.

“We just don’t have the budget to sustain the salary increases and the additional staff and supports that [the union] request,” Gothard said.

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