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Unpacking the pending St. Paul teachers strike: complicated allegiances and limited dollars

Unpacking the pending St. Paul teachers strike
Saint Paul Federation of Teachers
The union — which represents about 3,700 teachers, education assistants and support staff in St. Paul district schools — has threatened to strike over “the lack of progress at the bargaining tables on the most important issues for SPFT’s members.”

At the outset of teacher contract negotiations between the St. Paul Public Schools district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers this past fall, it appeared as though both parties viewed the district’s new leadership roster — with a full slate of union-backed board members and a new superintendent — as an opportunity for a fresh start. But there’s no getting around the fact that district finances are tight and most items the union wants come with a significant price tag.

Early on, the district invited reporters to a media roundtable to showcase its new “Guiding Values of Negotiations with Employee Labor Groups” and publicized its current budget deficit in an attempt to set some firm financial parameters. Leadership has been adamant, from the start, that the district aims to limit any employee contract pay increases to 1 percent.

SPFT leadership, taking a more unusual route to kicking off contract negotiations, averted confrontation by publicly calling on the district to join forces to go after local  tax-exempt corporations and nonprofit hospitals and colleges to “pay their fair share to support public schools.”

Once it became apparent that district leadership had no interest in teaming up in this capacity, tensions rose. Now just a little more than three months into contract negotiations, the union — which represents about 3,700 teachers, education assistants and support staff in St. Paul district schools — has threatened to strike over “the lack of progress at the bargaining tables on the most important issues for SPFT’s members,” according to a press release issued at the start of the month.

Members of all three bargaining units voted last Wednesday to authorize a strike. The federation hasn't called for a strike authorization vote since 1989, when it passed overwhelmingly. And a full-blown teacher strike against the district hasn't happened since 1946.

In response, the district began preparing for the possibility of a strike. On Monday it also entered into a full week of additional mediation days with SPFT.

If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, a walkout could begin as early as Feb. 13, forcing the district to cancel classes and deal with the ensuing public image of dysfunction that its leaders have been working to shed since coming into office.   

As both parties continue to hash things out behind closed doors, here’s a look at how things got to this point and what key sticking points will have to be addressed in order to avoid a walkout.

A failed fresh start

From the outside, it looked as though SPFT  had largely been getting its way these past two years.

In the 2015 general election, it had endorsed four new school board candidates who ran on a platform promising to make schools safer, among other reforms, as a number of schools in the district made headlines for student-on-teacher assaults.

When this slate of newcomers won, they clashed with then superintendent Valeria Silva at their very first board meeting by laying out a list of demands. The list, complete with a timeline, included things like boosting enrollment over the next three years and coming up with a new school climate plan in just three months' time.

By month five, Silva had agreed to take a buyout. Her pre-existing efforts to move special education students into regular classrooms and place sixth-graders in middle schools had put her at odds with new board leadership.

Amid this turmoil, the new board approved a new two-year teachers contract that included things like committing $4.5 million over three years to fund a restorative-practices pilot program and a pay increase that would cost the district $21 million in salary and benefits over the next two years. Then they entered into a yearlong superintendent search that brought Joe Gothard on board as the district’s new leader.

Heading into the current round of teacher contract negotiations, however, board members who were involved in approving the last teacher contract were more well-versed in the district’s budgeting process. Director Steve Marchese recently told the Pioneer Press he was “a little perplexed” by the union’s current asks, given what both parties know about financial pressures the district is facing as a result of declining enrollment and budget cuts, year after year.

As district leadership attempted to put their foot down, union leadership proposed they team up against an unlikely common enemy — local, tax-exempt corporations and nonprofit hospitals and colleges — rather than fight over existing resources during contract negotiations.

During the fifth mediation session, held Monday evening, district leaders conceded to this union demand, under the conditions that they create a joint education partnership council that brings together representative from the district, the union, businesses, non-profit organizations, the City of St. Paul and other bargaining groups. From the outset, district leaders had maintained that they weren't even willing to entertain this idea unless the union agreed to allow the district to apply for state Q Comp funding, an alternative compensation program that union brass have long resisted because it requires a small amount of performance pay.

The sticking points

Teacher pay — the hallmark of any teacher contract proposal — poses a clear hurdle during this round of contract negotiations. St. Paul teachers already rank as the highest-paid teachers in the state, with an average salary of about $76,000.

The union has proposed a 2.5 percent increase for each of the two years covered by the new contract. The district is offering a 1 percent increase to employee contract pay. Furthermore, the district has indicated that any other union proposals with price tags attached would have to come out of this same pot of money.

That puts the district's offer at $2.1 million in new spending for teachers and any other union demands. It’s a far cry from the $159 million that the union is asking for to cover teacher pay increases and other asks, according to district estimates.

Debates over how to address class sizes are nothing new to contract negotiations either. District leadership generally agree smaller class sizes are better. But they are feeling increasing pressure to keep class sizes flexible, as they seek to address the more pressing issue of boosting enrollment. At this point, the district has offered to keep the current ranges intact for schools at 95 percent capacity.

The union has proposed hard caps to replace the existing class size ranges. The proposed caps start at 18 students in any pre-K room. For higher poverty schools with 70 percent of its students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunch, the union is proposing a cap of 20 students for kindergarten classes and a cap of 30 students at the high school level. If the district were to concede to this demand, district staff say this item, alone, would cost the district $91 million to hire additional teachers to accommodate having smaller class sizes.

The union is also asking the district to supply every school site with a nurse and a librarian, along with boosting the number of school social workers and counselors.

Again, this is something the district generally supports. But it’s saying the funds for these types of staff additions would need to come out of the 1 percent teacher pay increase that’s currently on the negotiating table. Likewise, union proposals to expand the existing restorative justice pilot program are meeting resistance based largely on financial constraints.

In advance of Monday’s negotiations, in a letter to SPFT union leadership, Board Chair Zuki Ellis said, “As we continue to negotiate, with the hope of reaching an agreement and averting a strike, we will listen to and communicate with all employees, work to create a school system that everyone can be proud of, work within our budget while meeting financial obligations, and promote a culture that is focused on students, their growth and achievement.”

In a press statement released the evening union members voted to authorize a strike, SPFT President Nick Faber, indicated a strike, at this point, is a very real possibility.

“Nobody wants to go on strike, and we will do everything in our power to prevent one,” he said. “However, we are going to fight for what our students need and not apologize for working to create the schools Saint Paul Children Deserve.”

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Comments (17)

Please obtain key facts for this story

My wife is a St Paul school teacher. Here's what you need to know about the strike vote and what you need to discover. These votes are usually held in schools so voting is easy. This vote was held in a downtown St Paul hotel a block from the ice palace on a weekday evening making it nearly inaccessible for most teachers. All newspapers reported the 85% vote for a strike but not a single one reported on voter turnout, which is usually the first thing you hear on political election returns.

The issue is the union making it extremely difficult to vote and not revealing how many voted. Was it 20%-30%? Maybe more, maybe less? Since this is anyone's guess. Let's say 30% of 3000 voted, and 85% of those voted to strike. That would mean 756 out of 3000 voted to strike assuming a 30% turnout. That is hardly a rallying cry for a strike. It seems more like an overly ambitious union president engineering a strike vote to further his career.

Journalists, including you Ms. Hinrichs, please get the turnout percentage from the union and publicize it.

It has been stated that

It has been stated that two-thirds of members voted. This is not secret or hidden information.
I voted and was in and out in 5 minutes. It was not "inaccessible". Teachers who are passionate found a way to vote!
This is not about what teachers want, it's about what students need!
Google search SPFT for more information.

Seriously?

If a two-thirds turnout is not secret or hidden then what's your official source? Your claim of that figure along with stating that its not secret or hidden is meaningless, The fact is it is both "secret and hidden".

"Teachers who are passionate (about a strike) found a way to vote" - What about all the others who are busy, tired, have family obligations, and would have voted had the location been easily accessible with ample parking? Having to snarl downtown traffic in the midst of the Winter Carnival with no convenient parking is akin to removing polling places and making it inconvenient to vote which is gerrymandered by politicians when low turnout is to their advantage, as it clearly was in this case.

Yes, seriously!

I am the teacher you speak of, "busy, tired, have family obligations". I parked in front. It was easy!

*Source for two-thirds data:
https://spft.org/strike-results/

The media reports what they want, mainly incomplete and misleading information.

Please ask, if you have more questions. Your teacher wife should know this.

You're misinformed

Contract ratification votes always take place in buildings. Strike votes CANNOT take place on district property. We haven't had a strike vote prior to this since 1989. So, your wife is making an honest mistake and confusing the final ratification vote with a strike vote.

Secondly, just making up a 33% statistic is deceitful. 2/3 of members voted.

Correction

2/3 of members voting is hearsay. I have not seen an official tally on turnout from the union. My 33% example is not deceitful in that I clearly stated it as a hypothetical. Furthermore, since no official figure has been released by the union. Who's to say which figure is actually closer to the truth.

What is the end game here?

Are teachers really going to go on strike if the board is not able to deliver top line revenue increases that can only come with external legislative action (changes to the funding formula) or voter levy? There will not be a $159M bake sale. No matter how long the union stays out the board will not have the power to create top line revenue.

I agree that smaller class sizes are good for educational outcomes. I fail to see why any teacher would expect to get a pay increase to teach fewer students especially when average pay is the highest in the state.

Clarification

The tone of the article suggests to me that the board is being reasonable and financially responsible and the teachers demands are not based in reality.

Ms. Hinrichs, you stated, "Heading into the current round of teacher contract negotiations, however, board members who were involved in approving the last teacher contract were more well-versed in the district’s budgeting process." What does that mean? Did board members or previous superintendent not do due diligence?

Has the 4.5 million been spent on restorative justice? If so, what were the results?

What is the reasoning for going after tax-exempt corporations, non-profits, etc...?

My sources say the union may accept the 1% wage increase while health insurance premiums are expected to increase by 15-20%. So the staff will lose money.

I'd also appreciate more information on QComp funding. Has the proven to be effective? According to this Star Tribune commentary, it doesn't look very effective. http://www.startribune.com/the-state-of-minnesota-s-q-comp-program-10-ye...
Is the school board wanting to join QComp because it's effective or just to secure funding?

I know this was an attempt to provide clarity but frankly, I'm left with more questions.

I find these union members

I find these union members holding signs saying "kids deserve" really offensive.

Kids deserve to be left out of trade labor disputes. Kids deserve a school year in interrupted by well paid staff striking for more money.

I find your lack of reading comprehension...

Did you read the article? It is clearly spelled out that the staff is asking for more support staff, funding for Restorative Practices, etc.

You'll notice that a cost of living increase is only part of the union's proposal.

If you still find the strike offensive, then how else are the people doing the work (teachers) to demand better schools?

I notice that the unions cost

I notice that the unions cost of living increases are built into their step and lane system. I notice that despite Governor Dayton showering the schools with increased funding, the achievement gap hasn't moved an centimeter. I noticed the math scores have gone down.

And speaking of reading comprehension, I'll observe I said I found the strikers use of kids offensive, not the strike itself.

Seems to me, the union is demanding an easier work day for themselves, and more pay for doing it.

Restorative practices

As I understand restorative practices they would replace the current method of school discipline. Can someone explain to me why they are so much more expensive than the current method of school discipline? On the surface this looks like something that could be implemented with little marginal cost.

It's all about Nick Faber

I am a strong union supporter. However, it seems to me this impending strike, the inconvenient voting venue, and the issues considered strike worthy all adds up to a union president bent on furthering is political career? How did this guy become president of the union? How soon can the union vote him out?

pay

Hello, They are not striking for money! That is what they are offering, opposing hiring staff where it is needed. Like a nurse in school, that could prove helpful. Many schools do not have a nurse, or she goes from school to school to school, not as needed. It's just the job.
Pay.... many teachers do 11-12 hours of work on 8 hours pay, factor that in. They were but it was dropped because it was stupid, that every teacher be required to do 1 hour of work unpaid. Huh!..... they do that already.
Class size and staffing is about the kids, so you might accept that. School is about kids, and really nothing else.

How about St. Paul

School District tries to get its students up to grade level in reading, writing and math? Only 60% of 10th grade student are proficient in all 3. Once the school districts teachers starts putting out better prepared students for college or workforce then they can complain about not being paid enough. BTW, $75,000 (with great benefits) for 8 months work is not being underpaid.

More Money

The solution is always more money, more money hasn't solved things yet. I'm not opposed to more money. I am opposed to more compensation for poor results.

Average St Paul Teacher Salary?

What is your source for stating that the average salary for St Paul teachers is $76,000? Looking at the current salary schedule, a first year teacher with a BA gets $40,203, and never gets more than $65,443, even after 20 years. Even with a Master's degree, a teacher has to have worked with the District 15 years before receiving $76,000 and makes $82,414 after 20 years. So either there are an awful lot of very experienced teachers with a lot of graduate education working in the St Paul schools, or it's hard to see how the average could be $76,000. I'm not sniffing at $40,000, I'm just asking you to check your source on the $76,000 figure and square it with the salary schedule, and whatever figures are available on average tenure and average education level. Also, I would like to point out that St. Paul's Educational Assistants have also authorized a strike and are negotiating their contract, and their salaries are a lot lower. Here is the link to the salary schedule for teachers: https://www.spps.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=96...