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St. Paul teachers vote to authorize strike

Saint Paul Federation of Educators members
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
On Thursday, Saint Paul Federation of Educators members arrived at Iron Workers Union Hall to cast their votes on a strike.

On Thursday, members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators — the union representing teachers, education assistants and school and community service professionals in the St. Paul Public Schools district — authorized a strike. 

The decision had widespread buy-in by SPFE members: Nearly two-thirds of the union’s 3,550 members cast a vote, and of those, 82 percent voted in favor of a strike. 

“No one wants to strike, but St. Paul educators are fed up. District leaders aren’t listening to the people who know our students best – the educators and parents who are with them every day,” union president Nick Faber said in a press release late Thursday evening. “The longer they ignore our proposals, the longer our students go without the resources they need and the schools they deserve.”  

The union plans to announce a strike date next week. State law requires the union to give the district 10 days notice prior to the start of any walkout. 

During the last negotiations between the union and the school district, in 2018, educators authorized a strike and were ready to walkout, but the two parties reached a last-minute agreement ahead of the scheduled strike date. The teachers union in St. Paul hasn’t officially gone on strike since 1946. 

Thursday’s vote comes at a time when school funding shortfalls — often due to state contributions that haven’t kept pace with inflation and an unfilled special education funding commitments from the state and federal governments — are impacting districts across the state, including St. Paul, financial issues compounded by declining student enrollment in St. Paul Public Schools.

In a statement released just minutes after the strike vote results came out, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said he’s “extremely disappointed” in educators’ pursuit of a strike.

He also has a message for families, who are left wondering what a potential strike might mean for them and their children: the goal is to reach an agreement before a strike actually happens. “I remain confident that progress will be made during mediation to avoid disrupting all the great things happening in our schools,” he said. “I have instructed all members of the District bargaining team to clear their calendars, including nights and weekends, and be ready at a moment’s notice to continue mediation discussions toward a contract settlement.”

SPFE President Nick Faber
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
SPFE President Nick Faber: “We can lift up some of the places where our students and families are in need and advocate for that through our contract negotiations.”
So what, exactly, is the union asking for?

More than pay increases, for one. In an attempt to set some parameters at the outset of negotiations, the district set a target amount of $9.6 million in new spending over the next two-year contract, which included an offer of pay increases for union members of 1.5 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second. 

The union is seeking more aggressive pay increases: 3.4 percent the first year and 2 percent the second, but they also have a series of other asks, including more mental health supports for students, a top priority that entails staffing each school building with a team comprised of social workers, psychologists, nurses, counselors and behavior intervention specialists. The union also wants increased support for English language learners and more appropriate caseloads for special-education educators. 

Malachi Long, an education assistant at Como Park Senior High, cited almost all of those reasons for his decision to cast a vote in support of a strike. “Over the last several years, I’ve noticed more kids are struggling with mental health than I’ve seen in my whole 25 years,” he said. “It’s anxiety. It’s needing support. It’s depression.”

He primarily works with special education students, but he sees these needs extend through the general student population as well. If a strike actually happens, he says he’ll be on the picket lines. 

Lindsay Walker, a third year art teacher at Benjamin E. Mays IB World School, also cast a vote in favor of a strike, noting that increasing mental health support for students is what she’s most vested in.  Students, she said, “are coming with food insecurity, housing insecurity, grief, trauma. What I’m finding is with these things on their shoulders, they’re not in a place where they can learn, or express themselves creatively.”

Advocating for changes that extend beyond compensation and working conditions has become the norm in St. Paul — and part of an increasingly popular strategy among teachers unions throughout the country, known as “bargaining for the common good.” 

Faber says all of these things contribute to improving working conditions. But the main motivator in pursuing things like additional staff, integration efforts and restorative practices has more to do with advocacy, he said. “We can lift up some of the places where our students and families are in need and advocate for that through our contract negotiations,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Our contract is a legal document, too, so when things are brought to that, they are enforceable. That’s pretty powerful — to be able to advocate for your families and students with an enforceable document.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Peter Stark on 02/21/2020 - 11:28 am.

    Solidarity forever

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/21/2020 - 12:46 pm.

    I’m afraid I don’t see many of these concerns as things for which the school district should be responsible. Mental health, food insecurity, and housing insecurity are matters for which the wider community, including the state, should be expected to step up.

    I realize they affect children’s ability to learn and the classroom environment. I agree they should be addressed. I simply don’t agree that the cost should be borne by any school district, much less one on the verge of collapse due to declining enrollment and the related erosion of non-economic public support.

    As for pay increases: it’s my understanding that 2019 inflation was 2.4%. What warrants the additional 1% sought by the union in the first year? Unaddressed inflation in prior years? A rise in competitive salaries in other districts? The author of this piece might consider revisiting this issue and going deeper into the background.

    • Submitted by tom kendrick on 02/21/2020 - 01:29 pm.

      Mr. Hamilton, you make a very good point – the larger conditions of the wider society materialize in the classroom, and those of us in the public schools, especially, see these social concerns with painful clarity. Broken homes, absent fathers, poverty, drug use, violence, neglect, children raising children and so on – the tired laundry list of those who are falling through the cracks. But this is precisely the point. This is who comes in to many of our public schools. Needless to say, there is no way learning to read and do math comes to the top of these kids’ areas of concern. We teachers must deal with this social crisis before any academics can take place, and this is where the district comes in. Send help. Send bodies to assist us in this crisis, not more requirements for how to get test scores up. We know how to do that, but we are under staffed.
      Then again, maybe these large scale social issues are not the district’s responsibility. Where are we as a society on this problem of haves vs. have nots? Whatever we create, within the parameters of our society, shows up in the public schools. We see it first. Please help.

  3. Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 02/21/2020 - 01:37 pm.

    I am GLAD to see Teachers striking! They have to realize that playing nice is no longer an option. It has been 50 years of playing nice and what has that got you? Smaller class sizes? NO! Competitive salaries with other 4-year college Professionals? NO! Mandating additional degrees with out of pocket costs with adding skyrocketing tuition rates all for a fractional pay increase? Having decent Healthcare packages? NO! Pensions you can live on without working until you are 70! NO! Having Professional support staff on-site? NO! Having Administrators that actually support you instead of fighting against you? Seeing our state slide further and further down the list compared to other states where we are now ranked in the middle instead of a National leader like we used to be? Allowing Republicans to continually chip away the funding you so desperately need? 50 YEARS of WAR on Public Schools by Republicans has brought us to this point. Nationally we are ranked 32nd out of 42 other countries in Mathematics! Similar rankings in Science and Reading! How can we possibly compete on a Global scale??

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/21/2020 - 03:10 pm.

      MN spends more than most on education already. Money isn’t the problem. Teachers also make more than many other 4 year degree grads plus I’ve yet to meet a retired teacher that wasn’t living the good life on their guaranteed pension. The fact is your claims are opinions and not facts. Teachers in MN are making at or near 6 figures when you factor in benefits and other jobs they can take over the summer. That’s nearly double the statewide median income. If you think it’s so good in the private sector, quit the teaching job and apply at Best Buy et al.

      • Submitted by tom kendrick on 02/21/2020 - 04:07 pm.

        What is your point, Bob? That we teachers make a lot of money and should shut up? (By the way, most of us have master’s degrees.)
        I assure you, the measly requested pay bump is a good ways down our priority list. When you consider what we are called upon to do, and the grief we get for not accomplishing that task to the specifications of talking heads who never see the inside of a classroom, I can assure you this is not a gravy job, much as we care passionately about our young charges and our responsibilities.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 02/22/2020 - 09:27 am.

          When St Paul schools start putting out students prepared for “real life”, then the teachers can complain about their pay. Nobody in the real world (not being paid by unlimited tax dollars) with the failure rate of over 50% in their profession, should expect a raise. Would you go to a dentist that could only fill 45% of your cavity? Over 50% of St Paul Public School students are NOT proficient in math and reading. I guess that shows having a Masters degree doesn’t help teach when you have a broken curriculum in place. Next time your roofer comes over and only re-shingles 45% of your roof, be sure to give him a big tip!

  4. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 02/21/2020 - 03:01 pm.

    I read this and was hoping that I didn’t see that they wanted a pay raise. I have 2 friends who work in the district. One came from Woodbury, the other North St Paul/Maplewood/Oakdale. They were happy to get the job in St Paul because it is the best paying teaching job in this area. My friend from Woodbury went from the high 50’s to low 70’s. That being said, I do realize working in the inner city is harder job because there are so many minority kids who come from low income families.
    Every job pays different. You work 9 months out of the year. AND, you knew in advance you were not going to make 6 figures in the teaching field.
    Pensions? Do you know how many people have pensions nowadays? The public sector folks, that’s it.
    I wish the author would have posted ( can she comment here? ) what salaries were in this district and compare in to other districts in the Twin Cities?

  5. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/21/2020 - 09:36 pm.

    As a taxpayer, I am totally fed up. More money is not the solution.

    What we really need to do is to radically change the pay scales for teachers. Why should we pay extra just because a teacher gets an advanced degree. Being a good teacher has nothing to do with how many degrees you have. You are either good at teaching or you are not.

    We should put more money into raising the pay for entry level teachers and cut out the gold plated pensions that just encourage burned out teachers to stick around forever, just so they can get their cushy retirement deals.

    The focus needs to be on hiring great young teachers, particularly minorities, who can relate to students and get them excited about learning. While we are at it, we should be paying BIG bonuses to teachers who significantly improve their student’s performance.

    Anyone who strikes should be immediately fired.

  6. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 02/22/2020 - 04:04 pm.

    An unacceptable rate of student failure to graduate, deplorable test scores, unsatisfied parents leaving the district in droves.

    In what world does this performance review recommend a raise in salary?

  7. Submitted by Orville H. Larson on 03/01/2020 - 03:06 pm.

    I hope St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard doesn’t take any crap from the teachers, these whiners and apologists for mediocrity.

    Teachers have a pretty good thing going for them. They have a nine-month, well-paid gig on the taxpayers’ dime. And they extract that taxpayer money despite their abysmal results in the classroom. In the government schools–er, “public” schools–failure IS an option. Teachers resist accountability, they oppose student testing, and they’re against competition.

    Well, Superintendent Gothard? . . .

    • Submitted by sonja johnson on 03/06/2020 - 04:36 pm.

      When school is not in session, teachers are still in school (or working from home) planning. I know it’s a confusing concept for many, but just as a football game requires practice and play requires rehearsals, sales campaigns require meetings. It’s not a unique concept. And yet for most other professions, planning for work is considered part of the job. Some people do not understand the concept that teachers do not simply showing up during school hours. And they don’t want to because it ruins their argument.

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