(ST. PAUL, Minn.) — Teachers in the Minneapolis School District walked off the job on Tuesday in a dispute over wages, class sizes and mental health support for students coping with two years of the coronavirus pandemic, 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 on strike for safe and stable schools, we’re on strike for systemic change, we’re on strike for our students, the future of our city and the future of Minneapolis public schools,” Greta Cunningham, president of the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday outside a south Minneapolis elementary school where more than 100 union members and supporters launched a morning picket line in freezing weather.
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Although the school district found it disappointing, they pledged to continue negotiating. Callahan indicated that the union would also be willing to continue bargaining. However, no negotiations were set.
Teachers of the St. Paul School district, which has approximately 34,000 students, reached a tentative agreement Monday night in an effort to prevent a strike, which had been due to begin Tuesday.
Both cities’ union officials said that they were dealing with the same issues. 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.
The negotiations between the administrators and the union leaders of both districts were assisted by state mediators.
Teachers and support staff in all 50 states are suffering from the same burnout and overload issues as the COVID-19 pandemic. But, there were no major strikes. 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.
Parents already feeling the effects of the pandemic disruptions were stressed by the possibility of an earlier strike.
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 stated that her family is very fortunate. Her husband and she can count on the support of their parents in a strike. He has to go back to work, but she has some flexibility and is able to still work remotely. If teachers strike, what is her plan? “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.”
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Gothard provided the following statements for St. Paul schools: The district proposed to include language in the contract that would keep the average class size at the current level, to hire four additional school psychologists and to make a one-time cash payment for $2,000 to every employee of the union using federal stimulus funds. It also offered to raise the pay for low-paid education 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 is home to approximately 3,265 teachers while St. Paul boasts around 3,250. 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. The Minneapolis union is seeking a starting salary of $35,000 for education support professionals, with union officials saying it’s essential to hire and retain people of color.
Doug Glass, Associated Press reporter from Minneapolis contributed to this article.