(ST. PAUL, Minn.) — Minneapolis school district teachers walked off the job Tuesday in a dispute over salaries, class sizes and mental health support for students battling two years of the coronavirus pandemic, 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 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,” said Greta Cunningham. , president of the teachers. ‘ Minneapolis Teachers’ Federation chapter said Tuesday outside a south Minneapolis elementary school where more than 100 union members and supporters held a morning picket line in freezing weather.
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The school district called the news disappointing but pledged to continue to negotiate. Callahan said the union was also open to resuming negotiations, but no talks were planned.
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 facilitated negotiations between administrators and union leaders in the two districts.
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 no other major district was on the point of calling 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 an earlier 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 piece it together.”
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For schools in St. Paul, Gothard outlined the proposals in a statement late Sunday, saying the district is proposing 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 of $2,000. for every union employee using federal stimulus funds and to raise the wages of the lowest-paid educational 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 3,265 teachers, while St. Paul has about 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. The Minneapolis union is demanding a starting salary of $35,000 for education support professionals, with union officials saying hiring and retaining people of color is critical.
Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.