ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Last-ditch talks were underway Monday in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts, where teachers could strike as soon as Tuesday morning over wages, class sizes and mental health services for a collective 63,000 students.
State mediators were trying to facilitate the negotiations between administrators and union leaders in both districts. The districts have 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 that the Twin Cities’ districts are the only large ones 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.
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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. If the teachers strike, she and her husband can count on support from their parents, 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.”
Districts and teachers in both of the Twin Cities were preparing for a walkout.
“At this point, the district is not even pretending to avoid a strike,” the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals said in a statement Monday. “District negotiators are ideologically committed to the status quo and have shown that this is more about retaining their power than doing what is right for our students in our city. We are here to create systemic change and refuse to accept anything less.”
Minneapolis school administrators, in their last public statement, indicated Saturday night that the sides were still divided on budget and cost issues, and on proposals for teacher diversity.
The St. Paul Federation of Educators took a more neutral tone in an update Sunday night.
“At 5 p.m. today, we received a package of proposals from the district that covered issues in a number of our remaining proposals, including class size language, student mental health supports, and educator compensation,” the union said. “The bargaining team worked diligently to review the details of that offer and develop a counter proposal package.”
St. Paul Superintendent Joe 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.
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