The St. Paul School District suffers from declining enrollment, student achievement disparities, a $23 million budget deficit for this school year and more financial problems on the horizon. Although there is never a good time for a strike, a work stoppage by the city's teachers right now would be especially disruptive.
Last week, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers voted to authorize a strike that could begin as early as Feb. 13. However, after the vote district and teacher union negotiators agreed to expand this week's scheduled one-day mediation to hold talks all week in hopes of reaching an agreement on a new two-year contract.
At issue are salaries, class sizes, support staff levels, the number of English-language-learner teachers and other staffing decisions. In addition, the union wants a commitment from district officials to join them in demanding additional revenue for schools from the city's large local corporations and nonprofit hospitals and colleges.
With 38,400 students, St. Paul schools have about 3,100 teachers who earn an average of about $76,600 annually. The union wants 2.5 percent pay raises this year and next, but district officials have offered 1 percent. That's in addition to automatic increases that come through the steps-and-lanes system based on experience and education levels. St. Paul educators already are the highest paid in the state; the average in Anoka-Hennepin is $68,092, and in Minneapolis it's $68,768.
The district's position on salaries is reasonable, especially in light of the automatic steps-and-lanes increases. And school officials should determine proper staffing levels — not teachers or their union.
In the current contract, the union successfully negotiated to add the equivalent of 30 full-time counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and English-language teachers. Now it wants to set minimum student ratios for those teachers. Granted, additional support staff in those areas is needed, but the administration must have the flexibility to manage district resources.
Taking monetary "demands" to businesses and nonprofits is troubling. The city is already in discussions with nonprofits about making voluntary "payments in lieu of taxes" after a court ordered a change in the city's right-of-way tax assessment structure. And numerous businesses already contribute time or money to help students.
The union and administrators generally agree about the need to keep class sizes lower and increase support staff. And both are willing to consider new ways to handle student discipline. They should build on that common ground and negotiate an affordable contract that recognizes the critical challenges the district faces.