St. Paul School District, teachers back in mediation on new two-year deal

St. Paul’s public schools and its teachers’ union have entered into mediation on a new contract – the first since a three-day strike that was interrupted by the pandemic.

The union wants smaller class sizes, more mental health supports and back-to-back 2.5% increases. District struggles to contain costs as registrations plummet.

In a message to staff members before the closed-door talks began, District Human Resources Director Kenyatta McCarty said the school board has set budget parameters for all contracts and the union is coming up with proposals that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

The last time around, the Federation of Educators of St. Paul (SPFE) emerged in March 2020 with a deal that managed to exceed the district’s budget parameters at that time, but still found then-president Nick Faber disappointed. that the union could not win even more hires because pandemic containment was looming.

Since then, teachers in St. Paul and across the country have battled disruptions to distance and in-person learning, and have been forced to overcome the trauma suffered by students and families affected by COVID – all while trying to stay safe and focused, too.

Districts are understaffed and have difficulty finding replacement teachers. Teachers in Minneapolis are also in mediation with their district expressing concerns similar to St. Paul’s regarding recruitment and retention issues, and working conditions.

Just before the winter break, St. Paul staff members held drop-in events at schools in the district, saying supports were needed more than ever.

Union President Leah VanDassor wrote to members: “Let’s send a message to the administration that their take-out requests are unacceptable and a slap in the face to educators, students and families who have braved the pandemic and are coming together to continue to build relationships, teach and learn. “

SPFE again uses a ‘bargaining for the common good’ strategy that takes discussions beyond salaries and benefits into areas typically decided by management – measures such as class caps and new staff. support and other hires.

The neighborhood seems to have retreated.

In its message to members on Dec. 15, VanDassor said district negotiators brought forward proposals “to eliminate our hard-fought class size limit language and mental health protections,” and went on to describe the measures like “cuts to our schools”.

District spokesman Kevin Burns this week asked for a copy of the district’s proposals or a response to VanDassor’s position, said officials were following state Bureau of Mediation Services protocols to keep the proposals. and other specific confidential information.

He delivered a new message from McCarty to staff members, reiterating that the union’s demands “extend beyond the district’s allowable spending levels”, but that the district will dedicate the time necessary to reach a “contract settlement. in right time”.

The parameters set by the school board aim to limit salary increases for all unions to 1.5% for each of the two years, for a total of $ 7.7 million for the SPFE. McCarty said the SPFE salary proposal alone would cost more than $ 12.8 million.

According to the Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board, the average salary for a St. Paul teacher in 2020-2021 was $ 85,457, compared to $ 71,535 in Minneapolis public schools and $ 81,779 in the School District of Minneapolis. Anoka-Hennepin.

This month St. Paul Public Schools and Teamsters Local 320 reached a new two-year agreement for more than 700 teaching assistants. This contract provides for wage increases of 1.5% plus a one-time lump sum payment of $ 500 to employees on December 17th.

District contributions to employee health benefits have also been increased.

School board member Chauntyll Allen, a former education assistant at Como Park Senior High, said the deal represented steps towards fairness and a living wage.

“I want to thank the school district for appreciating the paraprofessionals,” she said. They now had the elevator they needed, she said, to really feel like they were part of the St. Paul Public Schools team.

SPFE negotiates not only for teachers, but also for educational assistants and school and community service professionals. The next mediation session for teachers will take place on Tuesday, followed by three meetings in January for the other groups.

In Minneapolis, the school district and three unions representing its teachers, bus drivers and office staff are now also in mediation.

Members of Teamsters Local 320, the union representing 100 Minneapolis school bus drivers and dispatchers, have voted to authorize a strike if their demands for wages and working conditions are not met.

The Minneapolis Teachers’ Federation is also pushing for higher wages and better working conditions, which Teachers Section President Greta Callahan says will help recruit and retain teachers amid a shortage of resources. crippling staff.

The federation plans to organize a march and rally in mid-January to continue to call on the district heads to conclude the contract with the pedagogical support professionals working in the schools. The union is asking for $ 35,000 starting salary for these positions.

Concerns about the pandemic have exacerbated tensions between the Minneapolis teachers’ union and the district. In January 2021, the teachers’ union made the rare decision to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission. The union received a temporary restraining order from the court, allowing school staff to work remotely if they previously had work-from-home accommodation.

Editor-in-chief Mara Klecker contributed to this report.

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