Twin teacher strikes possible in Minneapolis and St. Paul
Teachers in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools could go on strike as soon as Tuesday over demands for higher wages, smaller class sizes and more mental health services, in twin walkouts that could shut more than 60,000 students out of classes.
Teachers in both districts, like many around the country, say they're exhausted by the taxing demands of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. And in Minnesota, they feel the state should tap some of its whopping $9.25 billion budget surplus to help.
While negotiations will continue through the weekend, the sides have been far apart, and school administrators have been preparing for a shutdown. They say virtually all classes would be canceled in a strike, though some services and school sports would continue.
Here's a look at some of the issues at stake:
Minneapolis has about 29,000 students while St. Paul has roughly 34,000. Collectively, they have around 6,500 teachers. They also employ hundreds of lower-paid support staffers who are covered by the contact and who often say they don't earn a living wage.
“If the School Board does not intervene, then I think we are likely headed for a strike,” said Shaun Laden, head of the education support professionals unit at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
THE NATONAL LANDSCAPE
National labor leaders say teachers and support staff around the country are experiencing the same sorts of challenges, but that the Twin Cities' districts are the only large ones on the verge of possible strikes.
“This kind of stress and strain on teachers is happening all across the country, but there are a lot of districts that aren't acting like St. Paul or Minneapolis,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Other major districts nationwide are finding ways to address those concerns, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
“They're coming together using collective bargaining where they have it. And in states where they don't, they're coming up now with agreements to keep students safe, to keep educators safe,” she said.
Chicago teachers returned to school in January after a strike over COVID-19 safety protocols canceled classes for five days. In Pennsylvania, teachers reached a deal in November with the Scranton School District, ending a 12-day strike.
“We're fighting for safe and stable schools. ... We are no longer going to allow Band-aids to be put in place for the status quo," said Greta Callahan, who leads the teachers chapter in the Minneapolis union.
That requires not just better pay for teachers, but living wages for hourly workers such as education support professionals, counselors and social workers, she said. And it means measures to remedy the high turnover rate amid the district has experienced during the pandemic.
Callahan said her chapter has lost more than 600 licensed teachers over the past year and a half. Laden said the district has more than 200 support staff vacancies.
ST. PAUL TEACHERS
Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said St. Paul teachers' issues are similar, but that Minneapolis teachers are trying for gains that St. Paul teachers won earlier and are now trying to defend. She noted that her union held a strike for more mental health support two years ago and won.
“Right now, we're trying to defend all the things that took over a decade to get into place,” she said.
VanDassor sounded a more optimistic note than her Minneapolis counterparts. “I'm not wholly unhopeful,” she said. But she added that the difficult issues of class sizes, mental health services and wages still need to be resolved.
Minneapolis administrators say they can't spend money they don't have. The district says it faces a $97 million budget shortfall for the next school year, and that although one-time federal funding will cut that to $26 million, the funding gap will persist after next year. The union has been seeking a 20% wage increase for teachers and a $35,000 minimum for support staff. The average annual teacher salary in Minneapolis is more than $71,000.
St. Paul administrators say they're facing a shortfall of $43 million. They've proposed increases of 1.5% across all work groups, while the union has proposed a 2.5% raise. The average annual salary for St. Paul teachers is more than $85,000.