Tentative contract in hand, St. Paul teachers, district must turn to students

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 6:19 PM

We hope added costs translate into improved academic performance.

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The St. Paul school community breathed a justifiable sigh of relief late last week when teachers said they had reached a tentative contract agreement with the school district. That welcome announcement averted a strike — a scenario that everyone wanted to avoid.

Now that details of the proposed pact are public, it’s clear that St. Paul teachers will be better off. We’ll know in a few years if students came out ahead.

The agreement, which both the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the school board are expected to approve in March, includes wage increases, the hiring of additional support staff, some modest class-size reductions and expanded preschool for 4-year-olds.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the changes will significantly improve student achievement in the district. We certainly hope that the additional $33 million cost of the two-year contract — two-thirds goes to salaries and benefits — will result in better-educated children. As the price of public education keeps growing, taxpayers expect better results.

Test scores and graduation rates in the district have shown modest improvement in recent years. But because so many St. Paul students are so far behind, the contract and new agreements need to significantly speed up progress to substantially narrow achievement disparities.

In the previous contract, the administration and educators struck a deal for 0.5 percent cost-of-living increases in each of the two years, while steps-and-lanes (longevity and education) schedules stayed in place. That brought the average wage and benefit package up to $92,000, including average salaries of $68,000.

Under the new deal, teachers would receive a 2.25 percent salary increase in the first year and 2 percent in the second. In addition, many would earn an additional increase for years of service, and some would move up the pay scale if they earn additional degrees or educational credits. Combined, the total wage and benefit package would increase by 8.6 percent over the current pact.

Those are generous terms, especially in the context of private-sector compensation trends in the tepid economic recovery. In future negotiations in St. Paul and in other districts, the steps-and-lanes pay structure that generates automatic increases should be revisited. Seniority should matter, but districts should work to shorten the time period in which individual teachers can receive raises for longevity alone.

Other components of the tentative agreement reached in St. Paul — such as class-size changes and adding support staff — came in the form of memorandum agreements or board resolutions. That puts them in a less permanent category within the contract, giving the district needed flexibility.

However, it is significant that the board and the administration are on record as saying they will work to achieve those goals. Parents and community members who rallied for smaller classes, added support staff and greater preschool access will be watching.

Under the current contract, the district agreed to try to meet certain class-size ranges at various grade levels. The new contract includes similar goals, with the high-end numbers cut by one to four students. The new goals also call for smaller class sizes in the city’s most challenged schools.

There is wiggle room for the district and individual schools, though, and the class-size ranges are based on the number of students that teachers see in a given day — not overall student-teacher ratios.

The district agreed to reallocate existing funds to hire 42 additional support staff, including counselors, social workers, school nurses and library media specialists. The district also will use current funds to offer more preschool spots to those who have been on waiting lists. An additional $6 million can be channeled to Pre-K from the district’s all-day kindergarten referendum fund because the Legislature agreed last year to pick up that cost.

After reaching the settlement, district officials and union leaders agreed that compromises made in the new agreement reflected their “shared values” about what’s best for students. This page shares many of those values.

Presuming the contract is approved and the negotiations are behind them, the district and its teachers can refocus on the important stakeholders who did not have a seat at the bargaining table: St. Paul’s 39,000 students.

  • The agreement

    The proposed St. Paul teacher contract is expected to be voted upon by teachers on March 4 and by the school board on March 18. It affects 3,200 union members and will amount to $33 million more over the current contract. About $22 million in new dollars will be used for salaries and benefits. The remaining $11 million will be reallocated within current funds for items including 42 new full-time support staff positions, condensed class-size ranges and expanded preschool opportunities.

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