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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

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Showdown looms for St. Paul schools, teachers

  • Article by: Anthony Lonetree
  • Star Tribune
  • February 18, 2014 - 5:47 AM

St. Paul’s teachers enter a pivotal week of contract talks with a possible strike-authorization vote looming and with growing support from parents and others in their push to take their next labor agreement beyond traditional wage-and-benefit issues.

On Tuesday, many of those supporters are expected to be on hand and dressed in red when the school board — resistant to proposals it says could cost $150 million — makes strike preparations by voting on a resolution that sets the stage for school closings, layoffs of nonessential employees and possible extension of the school calendar once classes resume, post-shutdown.

To be sure, it’s still early. The rank-and-file has yet to give the union’s leaders permission to call a strike. And whether that strike-authorization vote even takes place next Monday won’t become clear until Thursday, when the two sides resume negotiations in a scheduled 12-hour session that both are approaching with optimism.

Still, the school district has concerns. It looks at the St. Paul Federation of Teacher’s contract blueprint, “The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve,” and its similarities to proposals crafted by unions in Chicago and in Portland, both of which pushed their districts over or up to the brink of a strike, and wonders whether St. Paul is being swept into a national movement — a coordinated series of walkouts or threatened strikes seeking to draw attention to newer, broader contract concerns.

“If you look at the playbooks, it’s similar verbiage and talking points,” St. Paul school board Chairwoman Mary Doran said last week of what St. Paul is doing and what the unions in Chicago and Portland have done. “Is it a national working-together kind of movement? It appears that way to us. I don’t know.”

Engaging the community

Mary Cathryn Ricker, the union’s president, said that she prefers not to worry about other people’s fears of a “connect-the-dots” strategy similar to Chicago and Portland. But when asked specifically if such a plan could be in play, she replied: “There is no grand plan. It’s distracting to go down that road.”

Two years ago, she was in Chicago, observing the teachers strike there, and when she visited the strike headquarters, she liked what she saw. Community members would arrive, asking, “Where am I needed the most?” It was powerful, she said, because it was difficult to tell where union advocacy ended and community advocacy started.

Months earlier, the St. Paul union had drawn on community support to help win concessions in the areas of class sizes and special education caseloads. At that time, however, the union-community partnership seemed more like a “work in progress.” After Chicago, she said, she was eager to see “what it could look like if we dove in.”

This time around, she took that community-building up a notch by dividing 22 people into study groups to come up with contract priorities for 2013-15. If the seven goals — “smaller classes,” “teaching, not testing,” “family engagement” and “access to preschool,” among them — are similar to those advanced in Chicago and Portland, she said, it’s because parents and teachers, regardless of the district, want the same things. A quality education comes with knowing children better, for example, and that is only possible when class sizes are reasonable, she said.

Last month, the union continued to build on that communal spirit with “walk-in” rallies outside the schools.

A Facebook group, “I Stand With SPFT,” has since been launched and had 1,220-plus members as of Monday afternoon.

Coming to a head

Tensions over the current round of bargaining came to the fore last week when the union’s executive board set a strike-authorization vote for Feb. 24 and Superintendent Valeria Silva and Doran followed with a news conference detailing the potential effects of a walkout.

Later, at a State Capitol hearing, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman noted that everyone supports goals like smaller class sizes and the hiring of more media specialists and social workers, but that budget pressures can get in the way.

“I hope we can continue the conversation and continue to agree that we all have shared and similar goals,” he said. “But let’s not have that fight in a way that hurts our children.”

Those hoping not to see a walkout here say St. Paul is not Chicago, and district-union relations are nowhere near as combustible. The Chicago strike, in fact, centered on edgier reform-minded issues that included how teachers were to be evaluated — as well as rehired after having been laid off.

In Portland, the district and teachers are in mediation as a Feb. 20 walkout date nears.

David Larson, a professor of labor and employment law at Hamline University in St. Paul, who studied the Chicago strike, said he believes St. Paul’s union is right to think more broadly about how to serve its members and to move beyond compensation concerns to issues such as class size. But then, in doing so, the union, as the district has argued, is straying into policy areas — matters of management prerogative that potentially create a power struggle, he said.

Twenty-five years ago, George Latimer and Dan Bostrom, then just weeks from leaving office as mayor and school board chairman, respectively, played important roles in helping avert a walkout by teachers — virtually at the last minute.

A strike is a heavy affair, Bostrom said, and as the deadline approached, he leaned on the advice of a former superintendent who once told him, “Danny, you have to be sure this is the hill you want to die on.” In the end, Bostrom decided he wasn’t about to walk out of office with a district on strike.

Latimer said last week that it was too early for alarm. Neither side could be blamed for the differences, he said. In fact, he was struck by how much they agree.

But the public certainly should be concerned, he said. Latimer, too, has a granddaughter scheduled to graduate, and he doesn’t want to see her ceremony delayed.

Chicago’s schools, he said, were in crisis, struggling with more than just the achievement gap and graduation rates. Things are different here. Things are, Latimer said, better here.

“There are just a lot of good things happening in St. Paul schools,” he said.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-503

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