Class sizes tightened in new St. Paul teachers pact

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 5:46 AM

St. Paul teachers to receive 8.6% wage-and-benefit increase. Union votes March 4.

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St. Paul’s Superintendent Valeria Silva shared details of the tentative labor agreement reached between the St. Paul School District and the teachers union. The deal will avoid a possible strike. The union is to vote on the agreement on March 4.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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A firming up of class size limits as well as an 8.6 percent wage-and-benefit increase over two years for St. Paul’s teachers were among the highlights of a tentative agreement outlined by district and union leaders Monday.

The total cost of the contract is $33 million — one-third of which the district would fund by reallocating existing resources, including a redeployment of current staff members, district officials said.

The two sides reached the tentative deal last week during a marathon bargaining session that lasted nearly 24 hours. They offered up the details on a day that union leaders initially set aside for a strike-authorization vote.

Of that last day and night — and day again — of mediation, Superintendent Valeria Silva said: “It was definitely history in St. Paul.”

The contract, which is expected to be voted upon by teachers on March 4 and by the school board on March 18, also calls for 42 new full-time positions, including additional media specialists, elementary school counselors, school social workers and nurses — the support staff members the union sought as part of an agreement it said would take the district-teacher labor relations into the 21st century.

The two sides also committed to dedicating at least $6 million per year to open more preschool slots for 4-year-olds — the union initially wanted every 4-year-old to have access to preschool — and to reduce the time spent preparing for state standardized tests. School assessments are to be reviewed, too, to ensure they are culturally relevant, union President Mary Cathryn Ricker said.

The proposed deal calls for teacher salary increases of 2.25 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second year, slightly above the average 2 percent annual increases now being negotiated elsewhere in the state, said Chris Williams, a spokesman for Education Minnesota. Many of St. Paul’s more experienced teachers — those in steps 15-19 and step 20 of the district’s salary schedule — also would receive an additional 1 percent increase annually, under the contract.

A typical teachers contract also includes steps and lanes — increases based on years of experience and education levels attained — as well as benefits that include district contributions to pensions and health insurance. All of which, in St. Paul’s case, adds up to a proposed 8.6 percent overall increase over two years.

The average St. Paul teacher salary is $68,436 — part of a wage-and-benefit package that currently totals about $92,000.

In 2012, the district and its teachers settled on a two-year deal that provided 0.5 percent cost-of-living increases in each of the two years. The total cost of that contract was about $13.9 million, or about $20 million less than the tentative deal negotiated last week.

Two years ago, voters renewed an operating levy used to fund all-day kindergarten. Next year, when the state begins allocating money to districts for that purpose, St. Paul will shift the levy proceeds to help expand the preschool program, Silva said Monday.

The effort to shrink class sizes was a priority for both the union and the community members it enlisted to help craft its bargaining proposal, “The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve.” But the move to smaller class sizes also could have the effect of limiting access to the district’s high-demand schools.

The district is nearing the end of its school-choice season, during which parents identify schools they’d like their children to attend. With the new limits, “we’re going to watch a few schools — the most desirable schools,” Silva said.

Dependable, transparent

Two years ago, the union won a victory on the class-size front by negotiating a memorandum of understanding stating that if the district could afford it, class sizes would be kept in the lower range of numbers approved as part of the district’s Strong Schools Strong Communities strategic plan.

For this round of talks, the union set out to strengthen the language, and the result, Ricker said, meets its goal of having a system that is “reasonable, dependable and transparent.”

Here is how changes would work at the elementary level:

New, lower class size ranges would be in place at 30 schools with the highest levels of poverty. There, the ranges would be 20 or fewer students for preschool, 20 to 25 for kindergarten, 22 to 25 for grades 1-3 and 25 to 28 for grades 4-5.

The union succeeded in negotiating a lower number at the top of each of the grades K-5 class size ranges. But it also agreed to give the district flexibility in meeting the class size goals, Ricker said.

For example, if a school had two third-grade classrooms, it could meet the class size goals through averaging — dividing the total number of students in those classrooms by two — rather than holding firm to the 22-to-25 student limit for each of those classrooms.

At the secondary level, the class-size goals would be geared to the individual teacher and the subject that he or she teaches. If an English teacher, for example, teaches four classes, the total number of students would be added up and divided by four, with the aim being to have the average fall within the preferred range.

Last week, immediately after a union rally outside district headquarters, Silva and school board members heard parents speak on behalf of union proposals, among them, the class size reductions.

With a tentative deal done, Silva said that she, too, appreciated what parents and others had to say. “They came, they supported,” she said. “I was watching a community that loves teachers.”

Elsewhere in Minnesota, about 40 percent of teacher contracts remain unsettled, Williams said.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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