The union representing 3,700 St. Paul teachers and school support staff members voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to authorize a strike against the school district — triggering a possible walkout as early as Feb. 13.
The action is the boldest yet in recent years by a union that has made rallies and strike threats an essential part of getting deals done. But it threatens to disrupt lives, too, and the district was quick to make that clear in a Thursday morning message to families.
All classes, including K-12 and preschool, would be canceled in a walkout, the district said. After-school activities and athletic events could be in jeopardy, along with the ability of a high school senior to lock in the necessary credit hours to graduate.
Now, district and union negotiators enter mediation sessions Friday and Wednesday with new urgency. Still, the union must persuade a district hampered by significant enrollment declines and budget shortfalls to break from a hard negotiating stance and come up with resources for wide-ranging proposals — class-size limits and increased support staff among them — that both sides agree have value. They are not as close, however, when it comes to pay.
"Nobody wants to go on strike, and we will do everything in our power to prevent one," Nick Faber, the union's president, said in a statement. "However, we are going to fight for what our students need and not apologize for working to create the schools St. Paul children deserve."
Superintendent Joe Gothard said: "I am disappointed by the vote and concerned for all our families who will feel the impact first.
"Still, I remain hopeful we can move forward on additional agreements to avoid disruptions to our students, staff and families."
The school board said that it is ready to talk but warned that a strike would not bring the two sides any nearer to an agreement.
Wednesday's vote came less than a week after the district told union negotiators that the funding for any proposals to improve conditions for students would have to come out of the 1 percent per year being offered for salary increases.
About two-thirds of union members voted, with the strike being backed by 85.1 percent of teachers, 89.5 percent of educational assistants and 82 percent of school and community service professionals.
Details were unavailable Thursday as to how many teachers voted.
The federation last called for a strike authorization vote in 1989, when the proposal passed, 2,062 to 254.
That walkout was averted when a deal was reached in the final hour.
Wednesday's vote could lead to the first teachers strike against St. Paul Public Schools since 1946, when the union apparently was the first in the nation to strike.
Union members have been vocal at recent school board meetings about a need to provide additional help to English language learners and expand approaches to discipline that value relationship-building over punitive measures.
"I voted yes to strike because our kids need better supports for English learners, mental health, school nurses, special education and restorative practices," said Kristi Herman Hill, a teacher at Washington Technology Magnet School. "We can and must do better."
Critics of the union's tactics — two of whom, Ian Keith and Roy Magnuson, are longtime teachers who served as federation leaders in the past — say the union has been needlessly divisive in the current negotiations cycle.
School board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis noted the board shares many of the same objectives as the union — from seeking new revenue to improving facilities to hiring new educators and support staff.
The difference, she said, is in how best to achieve those goals when resources are limited.
"That's what negotiations are for," Ellis said in speaking against a strike.
As for new revenue, the federation has asked the district to join it in pressing corporations and nonprofits to contribute financially to the schools, arguing they benefit from tax breaks and other policies that deprive schools of resources.
The district wants the union to work with it on an application to enter the state's Q Comp alternative teacher pay program.
Budget season begins shortly, and the district expects another shortfall for 2018-19, although it has yet to state publicly how large it might be.