Minneapolis teachers expected to leave work on Tuesday
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minneapolis school district teachers were scheduled to walk off the job Tuesday in a dispute over salaries, class sizes and student mental health support, at least temporarily halting classes for about 29,000 students in one of Minnesota’s largest school districts.
Union members said they could not reach an agreement on wages, in particular a ‘living wage’ for education support professionals, as well as caps on class size and more services mental health for students.
“We’re going on strike…for the safe and stable schools our students deserve,” Greta Cunningham, president of the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
The school district called the news “disappointing” but pledged to “remain at the mediation table non-stop in an effort to reduce the duration and impact of this strike.”
Teachers in the nearby St. Paul School District, which has about 34,000 students, announced a tentative agreement late Monday night to avoid a strike that was also scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Union officials in both cities said the issues were largely the same. The St. Paul teachers’ union said its tentative agreement — subject to membership approval — includes maintaining caps on class size, increasing mental health supports and salary increases.
“This deal could have been done much sooner. There shouldn’t have been a strike vote, but we got there,” local union president Leah VanDassor said in an announcement of the deal.
St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said the deals were fair while respecting district budget limits.
State mediators sought to facilitate negotiations between administrators and union leaders in the two districts. Districts had said virtually all classes would be canceled during a strike, although some school services and sports would continue.
National union leaders say teachers and support staff across the country are experiencing the same kinds of overwork and burnout issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Twin Cities districts are the only ones great on the verge of a strike. School district officials said they were already facing budget shortfalls due to enrollment losses resulting from the pandemic and could not spend the money they did not have.
The possibility of a strike weighed on parents already strained by the disruption of the pandemic.
Erin Zielinski’s daughter, Sybil, is a freshman at Armatage Community School in southwest Minneapolis. She and her husband support the teachers, although she questions whether the union’s demands are viable.
Zielinski said his family was lucky. She and her husband can count on their parents’ support during a strike, and although he had to return to the office, she still has some flexibility to work remotely. His plan in the event of a teachers’ strike? “Survival,” she laughs.
“You kind of become immune to it, between distance learning and homeschooling, it’s now a way of life, unfortunately,” she said. “My husband and I are going to put it back together.”
Earlier Monday, the Minneapolis district and its teachers seemed resigned to a walkout. The union, in a statement released earlier today, said the district is “not even pretending to avoid a strike.”
St. Paul’s union was more neutral in a statement saying it was considering a new offer that covered the issues with several of its proposals. Gothard outlined the proposals in a separate statement Sunday night, saying the district had offered to add language to the contract to keep average class sizes at their current levels, hire four additional school psychologists, a one-time cash payment $2,000 for each union employee using federal stimulus funds and to raise the salaries of the lowest paid education assistants.
“This comprehensive settlement offer meets union priorities, does not add to the projected budget shortfall of $42 million next year, and, most importantly, keeps our students, teachers and staff in the classroom,” said writes Gotthard.
Minneapolis has about 29,000 students and 3,265 teachers, while St. Paul has about 34,000 students and 3,250 educators. The average annual salary for teachers in St. Paul is over $85,000, while it is over $71,000 in Minneapolis. However, districts also employ hundreds of lower-paid support staff who often say they don’t earn a living wage, and these workers have been at the center of discussions.
Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.