By STEVE KARNOWSKI
Teachers in the Minneapolis School District were set to walk off the job on Tuesday in a dispute over wages, class sizes and mental health support for students, at least temporarily pausing classes for about 29,000 students in one of Minnesota’s largest school districts.
Union members said they could not reach agreement on wages, especially a “living wage” for education support professionals, as well as caps on class sizes and more mental health services for students.
“We are going on strike… for the safe and stable schools our students deserve,” said 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 length and impact of this strike.”
Teachers in the neighboring St. Paul School District, with about 34,000 students, announced a tentative agreement late Monday night to avert a strike that had also been scheduled to start Tuesday.
Union officials in both cities said the issues were largely the same. The St. Paul teachers union said their tentative agreement — subject to approval by members — includes maintaining caps on class sizes, increased mental health supports and pay increases.
“This agreement could have been reached much earlier. It shouldn’t have taken 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 agreements were fair while working within the district’s budget limitations.
State mediators sought to facilitate the negotiations between administrators and union leaders in both districts. The districts had said virtually all classes would be canceled in a strike, though some services and school sports would continue.
National labor leaders say teachers and support staff across the country are experiencing the same sorts of overload and burnout challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but no other large districts are on the verge of a strike. School district officials have said they’re already facing budget shortfalls due to enrollment losses stemming from the pandemic and can’t spend money they don’t have.
The possibility of a strike weighed on parents already stretched by the disruption of the pandemic.
Erin Zielinski’s daughter, Sybil, is a first-grader at Armatage Community School in southwest Minneapolis. She and her husband support the teachers, though she said she worries whether the union’s requests are sustainable.
Zielinski said her family is fortunate. She and her husband can count on support from their parents during a strike, and while he has had to return to the office, she still has some flexibility to work remotely. Her plan if teachers strike? “Survival,” she said and laughed.
“You kind of become immune to it, between distance learning, and home school, it’s now a way of life, unfortunately,” she said. “My husband and I will piece it together.”
Earlier Monday, the Minneapolis district and its teachers seemed resigned to a walkout. The union, in a statement earlier in the day, said the district “is not even pretending to avoid a strike.”
St. Paul’s union was more neutral in a statement that said it was reviewing a fresh offer that covered issues in several of its proposals. Gothard outlined the proposals in a separate statement Sunday night, saying the district offered to add language to the contract to keep average class sizes at their current levels, hire an additional four school psychologists, one-time cash payment of $2,000 for every union employee using federal stimulus funds, and to increase pay for the lowest-paid educational assistants.
“This comprehensive settlement offer addresses the union’s priorities, does not add to the projected $42 million budget shortfall next year, and most importantly, keeps our students, teachers and staff in the classroom,” Gothard wrote.
Minneapolis has about 29,000 students and 3,265 teachers, while St. Paul has roughly 34,000 pupils and 3,250 educators. The average annual salary for St. Paul teachers is more than $85,000, while it’s more than $71,000 in Minneapolis. However, the districts also employ hundreds of lower-paid support staffers who often say they don’t earn a living wage, and those workers have been a major focus of the talks.
Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.