Leaders of five Minneapolis school employee unions are calling on the district to settle expired contracts and address staffing shortages, which they say have been exacerbated by non-competitive wages for staff who feel stretched too thin.

Three of the unions representing the district's teachers, bus drivers and clerical staff are headed into mediation with the district. And members of Teamsters Local 320, the union representing 100 Minneapolis school bus drivers and dispatchers, have voted to authorize a strike if their demands over pay and working conditions aren't met. Legally, the drivers and dispatchers can't go on strike until at least 45 days after Wednesday's mediation session.

The educational support professionals union and the union representing custodial and school nutrition employees are both still in open negotiation with district leaders.

In a statement Tuesday, the district said it remains committed to reaching contract agreements with the unions.

"We recognize all employees are key partners in quality learning and smooth operations in MPS schools day in and day out," the statement read. "MPS will continue to prioritize students and promote learning and working environments that welcome, respect and value diversity and focus on student achievement and outcomes."

Greta Callahan, the president of the teachers chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), said higher pay and better working conditions could help recruit and retain employees to help address widespread staffing shortages. In a news conference Tuesday, Callahan said the district has lost hundreds of educators since the beginning of the school year because of retirements, resignations and teachers moving to other districts.

Shaun Laden, the president of the educational support professionals chapter of MFT, said the same is true of his membership. The district started the year about 150 positions short and has since lost another 100 educational support professionals, he said.

The bus driver shortage is ongoing as well, said Brian Aldes, the spokesman of Teamsters Local 320. The unit is still about 50 drivers short, meaning fewer routes and more crowded buses, he said. Surrounding districts also are offering drivers higher hourly wages, Aldes said, which can pull experienced employees away from Minneapolis.

"We are losing great staff every day in all of our bargaining units, and it's affecting the quality of education we can deliver to the students of Minneapolis," Callahan said.

The relationship between the Minneapolis teachers union and the district has been tense throughout the pandemic. In January 2021, the teachers union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board — a move it hadn't taken for more than two decades — and received a temporary restraining order from the court. That court order allowed school staff to work remotely if they had previous work-from-home accommodations.