Even as St. Paul schools were being shut down Friday by a vicious winter storm, school district officials and teachers reached a tentative deal to prevent them from being closed indefinitely by picket lines.
After an exhaustive 24-hour bargaining session, the school district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers announced that they had agreed on a new two-year contract running through the 2014-15 school year.
The agreement came just three days before the teachers’ union had scheduled a vote to authorize a strike. Instead Monday, union members will meet to discuss terms of the tentative pact, which were being withheld from the public until teachers and district officials could be briefed.
Both sides expressed relief at the settlement, which needs to be approved by union members and the school board before it can be finalized.
“We have a tentative contract agreement!” Superintendent Valeria Silva tweeted shortly after 9:30 a.m. “Time now to rest, clear our sidewalks (again), and get back into the classrooms on Monday!”
The two sides, which had been wrestling for nine months over the contract, sat down Thursday morning at the state Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul and bargained late into the night and then Friday morning before reaching the deal.
The negotiations concluded about 8 a.m., with bleary-eyed officials emerging into the daylight only to find their cars buried in snow.
In a conciliatory joint statement, Silva and union President Mary Cathryn Ricker said they were satisfied with the results.
“Though this has been a long and difficult process, both parties learned just how passionate we both are about the education of St. Paul’s students,” Silva said. “I’m pleased that this tentative agreement strengthens the partnership between the school district and our teachers.”
Ricker lauded her membership, along with parents and students who vocally backed the teachers in the past few weeks. “I am also grateful for the commitment of our bargaining team, the district’s bargaining team, and the Board of Education to making progress for the schools our students deserve,” she said.
Since the beginning of the year, the union and the district had reached tentative agreement on several issues, including parent-teacher home visits.
But key provisions left to negotiate included efforts to reduce class sizes, increase support-staff employees and expand preschool opportunities. Union officials said those goals would take the contract into the 21st century.
The statement released by the district and the union Friday said that the deal included provisions on consistent class sizes, improving standardized student testing and expanding early learning. The agreement also was said to touch on school redesign, national board certification, positive behavior and intervention supports for students, and more family involvement.
The sides had been about $9 million apart on their respective wage-and-benefit proposals. The average St. Paul teacher salary is $68,436, with the total package amounting to about $92,000. The union had sought wage and benefit increases totaling $28 million, while the district was offering increases of nearly $17 million.
Silva said the district couldn’t afford the union’s total contract proposal, the price of which she placed at $158.6 million — including $31 million for the class-size reductions sought by the teachers.
The union said it expected to hold a news conference Monday to release more specifics on the deal, which members will discuss at a meeting later that afternoon.
St. Paul school board Chair Mary Doran said she planned to brief her colleagues on the deal at a closed-door meeting Tuesday. School board members Jean O’Connell and Louise Seeba participated in the talks, while Doran stayed nearby throughout the day and night the teams spent negotiating the deal.
“I believe it will be approved,” Doran said. “I want everyone to know that we were passionately there on behalf of parents and students.”
Parents rallied in large numbers with teachers at a school board meeting Tuesday, backing union demands for smaller classes and more support staffers, and criticizing what they called the district’s “fear tactics.”
But the board also heard from minority community leaders who worried about the toll a strike might take on kids in the classroom. One was Jeff Martin, president of the NAACP’s St. Paul chapter, who said Friday that he was pleased a deal had been reached.
“I don’t think that the way to address the problems that do exist in our schools is necessarily through a strike,” he said. The NAACP generally supports labor, he said, “but never on the backs of our children. … I understand that teachers have obstacles in their way, but we weren’t talking about pay cuts, closing schools, laying teachers off — the usual things that lead to strikes.”
Nearly 30 percent of the students in St. Paul schools are African-American, and 31 percent are of Asian descent. Whites make up nearly 24 percent of the student population, followed by Hispanic students, about 14 percent, and American Indians, 2 percent.
Mayor Chris Coleman, who has made closing the achievement gap between white and minority students a priority of his administration, said in a statement that he “could not be more pleased” that a strike had been averted.
“Both sides have demonstrated a true commitment to working together to advance student achievement in St. Paul,” he said. “I’m proud of the partnerships we have created, and truly look forward to building on our most recent progress to close the achievement gap for good.”