With a contract settled and a strike threat behind him, Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, went to Minneapolis School District headquarters last week and felt right at home.
Teachers there were rallying, carrying signs with contract goals that included smaller class sizes, "less testing and more teaching" and a need for school nurses and psychologists.
"Bargaining for the common good" is what the negotiating strategy is called, and after being executed over four contract cycles in St. Paul, it's catching on with other union locals pushing to move contract talks beyond wages and benefits.
Faber sees this approach as necessary in a time of tight resources. "I think we're entering a new era of teacher frustration," he said. "We're entering a new era of teachers confounded about how little a priority that public education is and how much funding is appropriated to it."
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, said common good bargaining means teachers taking on issues such as mental health — or even whether students have enough recess time to help promote learning. Every other year, she said, her staff holds training sessions with local bargaining teams and reminds them of the broader possibilities of the contract.
"It would be immoral for us to ignore what the children need and just advocate for the adults," Specht said.
The fiscal squeeze is real, however.
In Minneapolis, where the district and union still are in mediation, the district has estimated the total cost of the union's contract proposals at $161 million — nearly the same as the $159 million price tag that the St. Paul district had attached to its teachers' requests.
Unlike St. Paul, however, the Minneapolis district has taken the added step of specifying that at least $77.3 million in proposed expenses shouldn't be handled in contract bargaining because the district contends the proposals are not typically listed under the terms and conditions of employment.
Gary Lee, deputy executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said that the stance taken by Minneapolis is one his group recommends. School boards, like unions, are in "the same boat," he said. They share the same concerns, are focused on the students, but when it comes to issues like lowering class sizes, "that's an inherent managerial right, and not something we'll put into the contract," he said.
St. Paul's broader pursuits started in 2012, when the federation was led by Mary Cathryn Ricker, now the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. Ricker was in St. Paul on the day federation members voted to authorize a strike, and she was back again last week for the Minneapolis rally.
She snapped a selfie of herself with Specht and tweeted it, saying Specht was there for "the schools our students deserve."
That phrase has a familiar ring to it.
Back in 2012, Ricker went to Chicago to observe a teachers' strike there, and she was struck by the close bond between the union and the community. Months earlier, the St. Paul Federation had drawn on public support to win concessions in the areas of class sizes and special-education caseloads. But it seemed more like a "work in progress," she recalled later, and wondered "what it would look like if we dove in."
When the next round of negotiations came around, the union was equipped with a blueprint of seven goals — smaller class sizes and "teaching, not testing," among them — that evoked Chicago's aims right down to the title: "The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve."
In 2014, after the federation scheduled a strike authorization vote, and again in 2016, after the union financed a Caucus for Change movement that ousted school board incumbents, the union succeeded in having class size limits inserted into the contract and additional support staff members hired.
The challenge this year was to build on those successes with a district coming off a string of budget shortfalls and enrollment declines, and after district leaders took a stand to limit the new costs of the union's contract to $2.07 million per year.
A strike vote was taken, and with only hours to go before a walkout, the two sides emerged with a tentative deal calling for 1 percent salary increases per year retroactive to Jan. 6 and the hiring of dozens of teachers and support staff members who work with English language learners and special-education students — all without adding to a $17.2 million budget gap being projected for 2018-19.
The union said it was guaranteed, too, that students in kindergarten through grade five would get at least 20 minutes of recess.
Laurin Cathey, the district's human resources director, said that the strike vote brought urgency to the negotiations, and the daily mediation sessions meant issues remained fresh in people's minds. The union's hopes of tapping rainy day funds dissipated as well, he said.
But the potential strike had threatened to disrupt family routines, and when asked if there had been conversations about families being turned off against the district, Cathey replied that the union and district may look into ways to cast the district in a more positive light.
Faber said he's excited about working with the district to secure new revenue for schools. And if their efforts are successful? The funds would go to meeting the needs of English language learners and special-education students, increasing mental health supports and backing a strategic plan now in the works, a union summary says.