St. Paul teachers launched the district’s first strike since 1946 early Tuesday, disrupting their own lives and those of 37,000 public-school students and their families in an effort to win higher wages and greater resources for students.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board most often stays clear of taking sides in labor-management contract disputes, in part because negotiations are private and typically fast-changing. Factual information can be hard to come by, and last-minute settlements are not uncommon.
That didn’t happen in St. Paul, where contract talks between the district and 3,550 teachers and support staff members broke down at about 3 a.m. Classes were canceled Tuesday in the state’s second-largest school district, and there were no plans to resume negotiations as of this writing.
The teachers, represented by the St. Paul Federation of Educators, want greatly expanded mental health services for students. It’s a laudable goal but one the district says would require 300 hires at an annual cost of $30 million.
Teachers who are now paid an average of $75,199 a year — the second-highest teacher salary in Minnesota — also want wage increases. They were reportedly seeking 3.4% and 2% over two years, while the district was offering 1.5% and 2%.
According to news reports, the district at one point in the negotiations proposed spending an additional $1.2 million to increase mental health services — on top of the $9.6 million it had established as its new-money limit over two years in a new contract. St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard has said the district now has 500 positions focused on student health and social-emotional well-being and can’t afford the union’s plan to expand services.
The walkout started after months of talks and six days of mediation that began March 4, and after the district had proposed a process in which each side would have provided their final proposals on disputed issues to an arbitrator while classes went on as scheduled. The arbitrator’s decision would have been binding.
The union rejected that proposal, however, and St. Paul’s public school students and their families will need to prepare for the possibility of a prolonged strike. The St. Paul district has been losing students and struggling to contain rising costs. The strike won’t help attract new students and families, who have lots of charter and private school options.
For the sake of all of the affected parties, most critically the St. Paul district’s students, the sooner the two sides get back to the bargaining table and reach a deal the better.