Sometime in the past few days, Erica Schatzlein said, the words being used by St. Paul Public Schools negotiators changed.
"They started talking about what they could do instead of what they couldn't," said Schatzlein, an English language teacher and lead negotiator for the St. Paul Federation of Educators. "And we're hoping we can continue that collaboration into the future."
That shift resulted in a tentative agreement announced Monday night between the state's second-largest school district and the union representing more than 3,500 teachers and other educators. The deal averted a strike and kept more than 32,000 students in class Tuesday, prompting a sigh of relief from families who had braced for new disruption in their lives.
Across the river in Minneapolis, classes were canceled Tuesday when teachers went on strike after they couldn't reach an agreement with that school district on a similar list of demands — better pay, better student mental health services and caps on class sizes.
In announcing the St. Paul deal on the school district's website, Superintendent Joe Gothard said the sides hammered out details that "respect our collective desire to do right by our students, while working within the district's budget and enrollment limitations."
In an interview Tuesday, Gothard was asked to identify the turning point after months of negotiations. The two sides were in mediation and had met until 4 a.m. Monday before resuming talks later in the day.
"I think with the timing of negotiations, it always comes to a point where you look at everything on the table and you know you're not going to get everything you want," he said. "Sometimes, it takes the right people in the room. Sometimes it just takes time."
The St. Paul union had filed its intent to strike in late February after months of negotiations. St. Paul teachers went on strike for many of the same issues in 2020 but quickly returned to work as the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, said he was "certainly pleased to see St. Paul reach an agreement."
The agreement in St. Paul includes contract language capping class sizes at current levels, hires additional mental health professionals, increases salaries — including the pay for the district's lowest-paid educational assistants — and makes a one-time cash payment of $2,000 to every union employee.
The district is using money from the federal American Rescue Plan to recognize that many educators and staff members took on roles during the past two years that they may not have been used to, Gothard said.
"It felt really good to have that money to use in this," he said.
If approved by the teachers' union, the agreement will go to the school board for a vote as soon as April 19, Gothard said.
The news brought a sigh of relief from many parents concerned about more lost school time for their children after two years of pandemic chaos, said Tonya Draughn, who has a daughter and several grandchildren in the St. Paul schools.
"I'm glad that they avoided a strike. I'm glad that I'm not dealing with extra kids [at home] and trying to find things for them to do," she said. "I wish that was the case in Minneapolis."
Draughn is a state delegate for the National Parents Union, which seeks to organize and empower parents in advocating for their kids' education. She has been outspoken in arguing against a strike. A strike would be disastrous for children whose families live "paycheck to paycheck," as well as children of color already facing a huge proficiency gap in reading and math, she said.
She is helping organize a Thursday rally outside the governor's residence for more state education funding.
"We have a [state budget] surplus, so what is the investment in our kids going to be?" Draughn asked, saying an increase in state funding could prevent school districts from teetering on the brink of strikes every two years. "If education is not on [legislators'] minds, it should be."
On Tuesday, Schatzlein, who teaches English learners at Nokomis Montessori Magnet School's North Campus in St. Paul, said increasing pay certainly was a factor in helping avert a strike. But putting class size limits into the contract "is a huge win, for our members, for our pupils and for our families."
She hopes the change she heard in the final days of mediation signals a commitment for the district and teachers to work together.
"I am quite tired, but I'm happy," Schatzlein said.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.