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.”
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.”