The St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers agreed to a contract early Monday that will not worsen a projected deficit for next year, district leaders said hours after finishing marathon negotiations and averting a strike.
Negotiators for the state's second-largest district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers hammered out a tentative new contract — the details of which have not been publicly released — in a session that began Sunday, prompting cancellation of a walkout set for Tuesday.
A labor strike would have kept more than 38,000 students out of school and disrupted a district poised for a fresh start.
The deal came together with late encouragement from Mayor Melvin Carter. On Monday, he joined Superintendent Joe Gothard and union President Nick Faber at a news conference to thank negotiators. He spoke, too, of a shared goal of continuing to provide a "world-class educational service."
The total cost of the new two-year deal is not expected to exceed the $2.07 million-per-year target sought by the district, Gothard said. Proposals being traded in a mediation session Saturday both called for 1 percent wage increases.
In a news release announcing the settlement, the federation highlighted its success in winning support for English language learners and students in need of special education services.
"We are proud to have settled a fair contract that will improve our public schools for all of our students," Faber said in the statement. "We look forward to continuing the fight for fully funded, racially equitable schools in the weeks and months ahead."
Gothard, who took part in mediation sessions over the weekend, said at the news conference at Galtier Community School: "I was proud to be part of it."
However, it is not a done deal yet. The two-year contract was being reviewed by the federation's executive board Monday night. If it recommends approval, a ratification vote could be held early next week, Faber said. The school board then would be asked to sign off on the deal — most likely in March.
Gothard also is leading work on a new strategic plan for the district. While a push for new revenue is expected, he was not ready Monday to say if it will include asking voters for more money later this year — a goal of the federation. He's not saying no, either.
"I don't think we've ruled out any opportunity that we have," he said.
St. Paul has been in budget-cutting mode for the past three years as it's faced large deficits, including $27.3 million for 2017-18.
Nancy Bitenc, a parent active in a No Cuts To Kids movement that fought classroom cuts in 2016, said her son, a fifth-grader at Adams Spanish Immersion School, had a four-day school trip to Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji canceled pre-emptively out of concerns that teachers would be on strike and unable to attend. On Sunday night, she said, she was certain there would be a strike.
"I have never been so glad to be wrong about something," she said.
Strike plans at Adams called for teachers and other staff to picket at the school from 8 to 11 a.m. each day, according to parents who were mobilizing to provide them with hand warmers and food, she said.
At the Galtier news conference, Faber thanked the broader community for its patience and support. He also spoke of collaborating with the district in the future to lobby for more funding at the Legislature. Union members could go door-to-door, too, he said, to recruit students to help turn around the district's enrollment woes.
Monday's pledge of harmony came after the federation was accused of divisive tactics, even from within.
Eighty-five percent of teachers who took part in a strike authorization vote on Jan. 31 backed a walkout. But two longtime teachers — one of whom, Roy Magnuson, led the union's political arm in 2015 — criticized the current leadership's confrontational style and wrote Op-Ed pieces to say that they were voting no.
"I am very pleased that a strike was averted," Magnuson said Monday. "The long-term damage that a strike would have caused would have taken years to overcome. Trust broken is hard to restore. Everybody who made the settlement happen should be thanked."
In December, the union suggested the school board was favoring corporate and nonprofit interests over those of students and asked pointedly of then-Chairman Jon Schumacher: "Whose side are you on?"
Schumacher, who attended the Monday news conference, said "you can't take it personal." He said he's ready to work with the union to find more resources for the schools.
"Nick and I know each other," he said. "We have no problem working together — and we really have to."
Gathered at Galtier were district administrators, community members and children, school board members and Clayton Howatt, a parent who led a successful "Save Galtier" campaign when it was targeted for closing.
Faber began his career at the school 31 years ago, and he recalled it having a nurse and a social worker and a librarian — the kind of positions sought by the union in its contract proposal.
He said Galtier has gone through changes, but like other St. Paul public schools, "it is a vibrant hub of learning."