Budget strife is sure to complicate teacher contract talks in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where teachers are pushing for pay increases and district officials are stressing how tight their finances are.

This month, Minneapolis announced it’s facing a $33 million deficit for 2018-19. St. Paul has yet to release a forecast, but it has let taxpayers know it aims to limit any employee contract pay increases to 1 percent.

Such public pronouncements are unusual this early in a school year. But both school systems are coming off a string of multimillion-dollar deficits. They also have been losing revenue as increasing numbers of students move to charter schools and other districts, the Star Tribune reported in a recent analysis of enrollment data.

As a new round of contract talks begins, union leaders say they will push for pay increases for teachers in both districts. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers also is continuing with what it describes as a “holistic” approach to bargaining by pursuing class-size limits and additional support staff members.

‘More and more needs’

Federation members and supporters who appeared before the St. Paul school board Tuesday noted the fiscal bind that districts are in.

They implored the board to go to voters for more money next fall and to join them in pressuring corporations and tax-exempt institutions to contribute financially to the schools.

“Our kids are coming in with more and more needs,” Nick Faber, the federation’s president, said the next day. “To meet those needs takes more money.”

Instructional salaries — pay going to school employees like classroom teachers, special education staff and teacher aides — have climbed in the Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin school districts in the past five years. In St. Paul, the salaries rose, then slightly dipped.

Of the state’s three largest districts, Minneapolis spends the most on instructional salaries — about $7,460 per student, according to state Education Department figures for the 2015-16 school year. St. Paul spends about $6,740 per student. Anoka-Hennepin dedicates roughly $5,450 per student, but the state’s largest district has fewer low-income families and a lesser concentration of English Language Learner students than the two urban districts.

In addition, Anoka-Hennepin, unlike Minneapolis and St. Paul, is projecting enrollment growth, and next month it will be asking voters to back a building bond proposal plus additional operating revenue.

As for the St. Paul federation’s pitch for a tax levy vote next fall, the district is saying “no” for now. First, officials say, they want the federation’s signature on an application to enter the state’s Q Comp alternative pay program. For years the union has refused, and that’s become a sore point.

In 2013, district negotiators walked out of a bargaining session and steered talks into mediation after the union said it wouldn’t sign onto Q Comp.

The district has argued that Q Comp no longer has a pay-for-performance emphasis and that the district could collect up to $9 million a year in state and local funding for things like teacher mentoring and peer review — rather than pay for those programs itself.

This week, Faber raised the specter of a future when government leaders tie Q Comp to an accountability system based entirely on test scores that would allow failing schools to be changed into charter schools. Besides, he added, Q Comp has 22 districts/charters/cooperatives on a waiting list: “Why are we chasing this money that’s not even there?” he said.

Faber said that the district should ask corporate tax evaders to chip in instead.

Four years ago, the district ended up giving the federation virtually everything it wanted in negotiations. Now, it has a new superintendent and school board — the latter with a majority that has parted ways with the union on Q Comp. District leaders also are united on trying to keep contract increases within 1 percent of the district’s general fund budget, Laurin Cathey, the district’s human resources director, said recently. Not that it won’t listen to the unions, he added.

Faber, like his predecessor, Denise Rodriguez, is sensitive about teacher pay.

More than half of St. Paul teachers earn more than $75,000 a year, tops in the state. Faber accused a reporter of fixating on wages at the expense of other parts of the federation’s proposal. So is he worried about how requests for 2.5 percent pay hikes and lower class sizes and additional personnel will fare when the district seeks restraint?

The 1 percent stance is “news to us,” Faber said, adding that the time to talk about that will be if and when the district brings it to the bargaining table.

Talks elsewhere

Negotiations also come at a tense financial time for Minneapolis Public Schools. The $33 million deficit projected for the 2018-19 school year comes on the heels of spring budget cuts.

By the end of this school year, reserves will be roughly half of the targeted district amount, Superintendent Ed Graff said in a staff e-mail this month.

Michelle Wiese, who heads up the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), said the union will seek to boost wages in its new contract.

District negotiators have proposed eliminating up to 11 calendar days, the union reported in a recent bargaining update. The district also has suggested shaving two calendar days this year, resulting in a 1 percent pay reduction.

MFT wants smaller class sizes and a $15 hourly wage for all employees. Officials are thinking about ways the district could move dollars around.

“We also, as the MFT, have some ideas about structures that can change that can make long-term structural changes that can help balance the budget,” said Shaun Laden, president of the educational support professionals chapter of the MFT.

It’s a different story 20 miles north in Anoka-Hennepin, where the schools are overcrowded and more growth is projected.

The union emerged with salary increases in a tentative agreement before school started, said Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota President LeMoyne Corgard. That will give teachers time to lobby for another important cause: the $249 million bond referendum next month, which would lower class sizes.

“We’re struggling with the growth and the potential for growth that we know is coming,” Corgard said.