Let’s hope the St. Paul Public Schools’ contract negotiations with its teachers’ union aren’t the start of a new and more chaotic era in labor relations in the state.

The district and the teachers were in mediation last week after months of fruitless negotiations, with the possibility that a strike could start Tuesday. As of this writing, they were making progress but still had no deal.

But what’s remarkable in this case is not the shape of negotiations but that everybody at one time was on the same side.

The teachers in St. Paul put much of the energy behind a political movement called Caucus for Change in school board elections some years ago, and they carried the day. When the votes were counted, they had in effect just elected their own “management.”

These are the same people the union in January voted to walk out on.

It’s a little like watching employees at a company they own through an ESOP vote to walk out because the board they put in place decided there’s not enough money for raises.

“It’s a great question” how teachers could have ended up so at odds with school board members they helped elect, said Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change in St. Paul. A policy analyst with a career in and around St. Paul schools, Nathan added that he saw no way to a new contract without big concessions from both sides.

There hasn’t been a teacher strike in St. Paul since Harry Truman was president. In fact, traditional points to hammer out in collective bargaining, like pay or retirement benefits, weren’t even top-of-the-list issues in early 2015, at the start of an election season largely shaped by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

The teachers most cared about keeping schools safe and dealing with unruly kids, having enough trained staff to work with students who don’t speak English at home, and finding new ways to close the persistent educational achievement gap between white students and students of color.

There was also growing frustration over a steady erosion of enrollment, as more families chose charter schools or schools in the suburbs for their kids.

The political efforts of the teachers, along with parents and lots of others, coalesced under the banner of the Caucus for Change. In April 2015, three incumbents running for re-election to the seven-member Board of Education lost the endorsement of the city’s dominant political party, the DFL. Instead, four Caucus for Change newcomers got the nod.

Maybe they all understood the challenge the day they filed for office, but once the four were elected that November, they got a close look at how difficult it is to make big changes in a school district with nearly 40,000 students.

And there was never going to be any spare money.

The total budget for the current fiscal year is more than $700 million, but with a chronic budget problem ahead, the board allocated a 1 percent salary increase to settle union contracts. The board negotiates with 16 employee unions, and members further cautioned union members that a lot of their great ideas had no realistic way to be funded.

The board’s website notes that “the ... negotiations team has asked [the teachers’ union] to prioritize its proposals, all of which would cost nearly $200 million.”

In addition to a chasm about money, a separate one seems to have developed over the tactics used to get what all parties seemed to want. A good example is how to go about getting more money for education from big companies in the east metro including Ecolab, Securian Financial Group and U.S. Bancorp.

According to one analysis prepared by the union, of the big companies nearby, only 3M Co. seemed to be a consistent supporter. The teachers’ union also pointed out that some of these other companies seemed to have a lot of money to pour into the recent Super Bowl.

“Hey @USBank — If you can pay for the #SuperBowl, can’t you afford to help our kids and schools?” was one message union members were encouraged to post on Twitter.

The union had a constructive meeting with U.S. Bancorp staff, according to an interview with union president Nick Faber published last week on the website of the magazine Jacobin. Yet once a follow-up video went up on the union’s Facebook page, the bank e-mailed and said there wouldn’t be anything further to talk about.

“From the beginning we asked [the board members] to work together with us on a number of points to raise revenue for the district,” said union spokesman Patrick Burke, including seeking payments from big nonprofits in lieu of property taxes and more support from private corporations. “The answer to that so far has been no.”

The school board members certainly agree more money from corporations would be great, but they have the wisdom to realize big companies already meet their obligations under current tax laws. That means executives at these companies have to be persuaded to donate more. Trying to goad them on Twitter? Not a good idea.

Burke added that teachers are “disappointed” that board members they supported haven’t yet embraced the union’s priorities, adding that one problem is that the district’s staffers have attended the mediation sessions, not school board members themselves.

Setting aside whether board members should be there, that a closed-door mediation even got underway showed how far the Caucus for Change has shot off the rails. From the beginning the promise was to open up policymaking, to carefully listen to employees, families and taxpayers before moving ahead.

As the argument with teachers has been over things like more staff for English language learners and smaller overall class sizes, it seems those policy choices will now get worked out behind a closed door. That’s if all of them can be worked out.

As of this writing, the two sides hoped to persevere into Monday if that’s what it took to head off a strike this week. But the details of a deal won’t really matter to the most fundamental outcome of these negotiations.

There won’t be any winners.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302