Contract talks are underway between the St. Paul School District and the unions representing its teachers and cafeteria workers, and district officials are pledging a united front to contain costs.

There is a lot riding on the outcome.

Enrollment has been on the decline, budget-cutting has become an annual exercise and at least one union — the St. Paul Federation of Teachers — is urging the district to go to voters next fall to pursue new funding for schools.

Board Chairman Jon Schumacher said that the district first must show that it is using its budget efficiently and effectively. As part of that effort, district officials outlined in advance of its second negotiating session with teachers on Oct. 12 what they call the "guiding values" for talks with all of its unions, one of which states: "Working within our budget while meeting financial obligations."

The district also announced this week its intention to have all employees be paid $15 per hour by 2020. Teaching assistants are on track to hit that mark in 2019 — at a cost of $600,000. The district's current offer to cafeteria workers would get them there in 2020 for $350,000, but union members have raised objections to that proposal in often raucous recent appearances before the school board.

In a statement Tuesday, Superintendent Joe Gothard said: "We are investing in the people who make a significant impact on the lives of our students every day. They are the staff who provide meals to our students and those who work in classrooms alongside our teachers."

As for the teachers, more than half of those in St. Paul earn more than $75,000 a year, compared with 15 percent of other teachers in the state.

Contracts expired this summer for teachers and cafeteria workers.

Last week, the federation proposed teaming with the district to put a tax-levy proposal on the November 2018 ballot and to seek separate contributions from corporations and payments in lieu of taxes from large hospitals and higher-education institutions, which are exempt from property taxes.

The union also has signaled plans to pursue wage increases and further limits to class sizes and to fund teacher home visits and additional mental-health support staff members. The federation threatened to strike over school safety concerns before the current contract was settled.

On Tuesday, Laurin Cathey, the district's human resources director, said that Gothard, the school board and the administration are united behind a strategy governing its side of contract talks for at least three years. He acknowledged that differences of opinion among main players in the past have driven up contract costs.

The district's one-page flier notes that the district will establish "an annual dollar amount for negotiations among all employee groups." The district, however, declined repeated Star Tribune requests to provide that figure to reporters Tuesday and Wednesday, saying only that the number represents one percent of the salary cost within the general fund budget.

"As part of its strategy, SPPS won't share the specific number because that then becomes everyone's target and makes the negotiations more complicated," district spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said in an e-mail.