"The time is now" is one of the mantras Minneapolis and St. Paul union teachers use as they prepare for possible strikes.
Yet a strong argument can be made that there couldn't be a worse time for educators in the state's two largest cities to hold a work stoppage. Like all school districts, Minneapolis and St. Paul are working mightily to recover from nearly two years of COVID-related challenges, including months of remote learning. Even a brief strike would set back those efforts.
Some may believe this is a good time because of the millions of additional funds school districts have received under the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP). But union negotiators must keep in mind that those are one-time funds, making it difficult for districts to use them for ongoing spending on staffing and salaries.
The disruption the strikes would bring for students and families would be enormous. Just as they've settled into more normal in-classroom learning and activities, they would be plunged into a situation that's even worse than the COVID distance-learning days. Students who are already struggling to catch up would fall even further behind.
Unions in both cities say they are fighting for similar contract provisions. They're seeking more mental health support for students, smaller class sizes and higher wages. As school districts are experiencing significant educator and other worker shortages, the bargaining groups say increasing wages will help retain and recruit teachers and other staff.
More specifically, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals (MFT) is seeking a starting wage of $35,000 for support staff — some of whom now earn considerably less than that. MFT also wants protections to help retain teachers of color.
Across the river, the St. Paul Federation of Educators want contract provisions that include several-person mental health teams in every school, lower class sizes and more staff to assist special needs students.
In video messages, St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard and Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said they share the values of their unions and said they have invested in recent years in the areas teachers have highlighted. But they also cautioned that the districts cannot meet the price tags of the requests with money they don't have.
Despite the influx of additional federal dollars, both districts are projecting significant budget shortfalls — $25.5 million for Minneapolis Public Schools and $42.8 million for St. Paul Public Schools. Some of that is caused by declining enrollment in both cities. An SPPS spokesman told an editorial writer that student enrollment has decreased by 11% since 2015, while the number of student support positions increased by 54% during the same period.
After months of tough negotiations, unions representing teachers and support staff in both districts voted last month to authorize strikes. If agreements are not reached by late Monday night, the strikes could begin on Tuesday.
To the credit of both sides, St. Paul educators and administrators say they are committed to regaining stability after two of the most turbulent years students and staff have ever faced. And as of press time Friday, both said they will be working on an agreement in closed-door sessions around the clock all weekend.
"We have tried everything else," Greta Callahan, president of the teacher chapter of the MFT, told the Star Tribune last month. "A strike is a last resort, and we are really hoping that our leaders are going to do the right thing for our kids because all of this can be avoided."
We encourage both sides to do all they can this weekend to reach a reasonable compromise to do just that — avoid going on strike.