Early Tuesday morning, more than 3,000 St. Paul teachers and education assistants gathered near their school buildings and along overpasses to picket instead of teach.
Their union, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, finalized strike plans around 3 a.m. on March 10, following a string of negotiation sessions with the St. Paul Public Schools district that ended in a stalemate.
At this point — with no new mediation sessions scheduled — it remains unclear how long the strike will last. In the interim, it means no classes for students and no pay for teachers who are participating in the strike.
This uncertainty also impacts families, which are left to piece together alternative child care plans. And it’s shifted how the district operates, as it attempts to piece together school meal options, transportation and after-school programming.
Despite the stress and inconvenience born by students and families, St. Paul educators say the need for increased student supports — for English language learners, for special education students, for those in need of mental health services — has reached a critical point.
Teacher picketing Tuesday morning talked passionately about the need for these added support systems in their schools.
Stepping out of the picketing queue on the sidewalk in front of Johnson High School, Mary Voigt, a social studies teacher at the school who’s in her 15th year of teaching in the district, pointed out the holes in the student support systems that currently exist.
For instance, her school has a full-time school nurse, she says. But an elementary school that her daughter attends, in the same district, doesn’t.
“And I know, from working with my students, that they come with trauma — beyond the issues of just being a teenager,” she said. “They come with difficulties that make it hard for me to make the learning partnership I need with them, to push them forward.”
The other union demand that resonates most with her experience in the school has to do with the need for more multilingual staff hires to better enable communication with family members who aren’t fluent in English.
At her school, nearly a quarter of the school’s student population receive English learner services, with Hmong being a predominant home language.
Elementary teachers and education assistants from Mississippi Creative Arts School lined two Interstate 35E overpasses near their school.
On Larpenteur Ave., Chris Baumhover, an English language learner teacher who’s been with the district for 25 years, says the multilingual needs go “hand in hand” with mental health support needs of many of her Karen refugee students.
“When dealing with crisis, you want to talk with someone in your first language. But we don’t have enough interpreters to help with that kind of thing,” she said, noting she’s often left to rely on parents to bring their own translator.
Her colleague, Timothy Dopson, an intervention specialist at the same school, says his school is understaffed when it comes to addressing student mental health needs — especially those related to trauma. State data show that 60 percent of the students at his school receive English learner services and 88 percent qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.
“A lot of our kids, part of why they’re failing academically is ‘cause they haven’t dealt with a lot of the trauma they have in their environments, or because of the life they’re living over a period of time,” he said.
These are the sorts of things that district leaders agree on, in terms of need. But, when it comes to cost, the district says it’s just not feasible.
“I want to make it clear: I believe our students need and deserve additional support. That has never been in question,” Supt. Joe Gothard said in a press release Tuesday. “However, we must prioritize our spending because we have limited resources. We need to place new investments where they are needed most.”
Marny Xiong, chair of the district’s board of education, came out of the last mediation session reiterating the need to stay fiscally responsible.
“We all agree our students need additional support, but we must be intentional and responsible when increasing investments in our district,” she said. “The [St. Paul Federation of Educators] proposals would have forced cuts to programs and would have been unfair to other [St. Paul Public Schools] collective bargaining units.”
The union’s proposal would add another 300 staff to build out mental health teams — to include a counselor, a social worker, a nurse, a psychologist and a behavior intervention specialist — in every building, at an estimated cost of $30 million a year.
Last Thursday, the federation offered to phase this demand in over a three-year period, to bring the cost down to an estimated $10 million in new spending each year.
This pressure comes at a time when school funding shortfalls — resulting from state contributions that haven’t kept pace with inflation and unfilled special education and English language learner funding commitments from the state and federal governments — are impacting districts across the state, including St. Paul.
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.
St. Paul teachers are some of the highest paid in the state, at an average annual salary of just over $75,000. Teacher pay, however, hasn’t been a huge talking point at press conferences and at teacher rallies. In these public spaces, the narrative has stayed focused on advocacy for increased student support services — a key attribute in a growing wave of teacher walkouts, nationally.
Tuesday afternoon, St. Paul teachers marched down W. 7th Street from the Global Art Plus-Upper Campus to district headquarters. In a show of solidarity, state and national union leaders addressed the crowds.
Ahead of the impending strike, they held a press conference outside of Washington Technology Magnet School the day prior.
“No one believes that a strike ought to be inevitable. Strikes are last resorts. Strikes happen when educators are at tables begging, trying to get the services that children need,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “We’re basically saying, ‘We need to focus on children’s well-being first and foremost.’”