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Teacher: Good contracts benefit St. Paul students

Mary Cathryn Ricker

The members of my local union, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, have voted to strike if negotiators fail to make sufficient progress on key teaching and learning issues. Having taught alongside many of these educators, having others responsible for meeting the needs of my own children for the last 15 years, and having previously led this union for nine years, I know these educators did not take this step lightly. I also know the seriousness with which our union brings each proposal to the negotiating table because educators know those policies affect the lives of students for many years.

In 2009, our union saw within the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act an opportunity to support and improve the quality of teaching in our district. We negotiated to direct $300,000 of the $32 million flowing to St. Paul schools toward a new peer assistance and review program, or PAR. That program now provides a consistent and rigorous system for achieving tenure. It also provides assistance for accomplished teachers to pursue National Board Certification and helps struggling teachers improve.

Home visiting, class sizes

In 2011, our union had already seen some success building relationships between parents and educators through a small home visiting program. We used our contract to create a formal partnership with the district to grow the program to meet the demands of teachers and paraprofessionals who had heard about it through word of mouth. In 2015 alone, St. Paul educators made more than 1,430 visits through the Parent/Teacher Home Visiting Program, which is now a model for similar efforts around the state.

Also in 2011, our union negotiated language to begin giving communities some control over the size of classes in their neighborhood schools. Learning improves when teachers build relationships with each student, and that happens best when there are a sensible number of students an educator sees at one time and over the course of a school day.

A faith in collective bargaining

I was not involved in crafting the proposals on the table this year, but I know from where they come. They come from the faith we have in collective bargaining as a process to deliver the schools our students deserve. The negotiating table is a place we make promises to each other, promises that we keep. Too many people have been breaking their promises to our students and our public schools, so you bet we’re going to use the bargaining table to hold them accountable.

When our students don't have a nurse at school they are more likely to miss more days of learning, especially students with chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, so we bargain for more nurses.

When the families of students with exceptional needs demand to know why their schools are scrambling to educate them, those families deserve to know how the state and federal governments are falling far short of their legal responsibilities to pay for special education. You bet we are going to use the bargaining table to find solutions.

When Congress passes a tax law that eliminates longstanding deductions families depend on, while adding billions to the bottom lines of major corporations and starting a cascade of cuts to education, health care, city services and other public goods — yes, my union will ask those who benefit the most to contribute a little more to pay for the public schools St. Paul students deserve.

Educators cannot separate the work we do to meet the needs of our students from our expectation that a good contract can break the barriers preventing us from delivering a high quality, public school experience for every child. I believe the members of my union when they say they are serious about what they want to accomplish to improve teaching and learning, and I believe them when they say they are willing to strike to accomplish it.

Mary Cathryn Ricker is a National Board Certified English teacher and executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. She was president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers from 2005 to 2014. 

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