Hundreds of teachers, community members and parents rallied outside Minneapolis Public Schools’ headquarters Tuesday afternoon chanting and carrying signs.
More than 200 teachers and supporters turned out to demonstrate what they called the district’s “mishandling” of the teachers’ labor contract, which expired in June.
The rally comes on the heels of Monday’s last-minute settlement between the St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers one day ahead of a strike deadline.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is pressing the district for pay increases, smaller class sizes and a $15 minimum wage for all employees.
“The rally today is designed to put pressure on the school board to have their negotiators come to the mediation table and have real conversations about these issues,” said Michelle Wiese, president of the federation, the union that represents the district’s 3,521 teachers.
Minneapolis, the state’s third-largest school system with 36,961 students, is grappling with a $33 million deficit and decreasing enrollment. The district said it would cost about $161 million to fulfill the union’s proposal. The school district also noted at least $77.3 million in proposed expenses shouldn’t be handled through contract bargaining because they are not typically listed under the terms and conditions of employment.
After the rally outside, the group went inside and filed through the school board meeting. There, Superintendent Ed Graff said he is working to reach a mutual settlement soon with the teachers union.
“We are all aware that the uncertainty associated with not having our contract settled is wearing on the entire district teachers, staff, and families,” Graff said Tuesday evening. “And so we have identified dates this week and next to go back to the table and continue mediation.”
In a November letter to staff, Graff said he asked the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services to help in the negotiations.
The union called that move “premature” and argued it was a tactic to keep the public out of the bargaining process. Despite five public bargaining sessions and four mediation meetings, Wiese said, there has been little progress.
“We’re asking them to re-examine their priorities and where they are funding,” she said. “During these sessions, we have not had substantive conversations of any kind. We’re in separate rooms, we’re passing proposals back and forth and we’re not making headway.”
According to the district, instructional salaries — pay going to school employees such as classroom teachers, special education staff, and teacher aides — have gone up drastically in the last six years. Starting wages for teachers have increased by 28 percent while support staff have seen a 31 percent jump in wages during the same time period.
Now, Minneapolis teachers earn an average salary of $70,813 annually. The average for support staff is $34,365.
Union members, however, disagree with the district. It argues its members have seen a 14.37 percent rise in the past 14 years, an increase of about 1 percent annually. “And [when] we put that against cost of living, teachers have essentially been going backward,” Weise said, adding that the focus of the negotiations should be on students getting the basic services they deserve and reasonable class sizes.
The district’s spokesman, Dirk Tedmon, responded by citing the current contract, which detailed a 2.5 percent increase to base salary in 2015-16 and a 2 percent increase to base salary in 2016-17. The 28 percent “is inclusive of both negotiated percent increases as well as step and lane movements,” he said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
Tedmon also cited seven public bargaining sessions that took place between Sept. 5, 2017, and Dec. 19, 2017.
Teachers Soraya Valedon-Lopez and Arika Quintanilla, who participated in the demonstration, said the district has ignored the needs of minority teachers and students of color in particular. “We don’t feel like we have the support of our district,” said Valedon-Lopez. “We are raising our voice today.”