St. Paul educators agreed once again Thursday to authorize a strike against the state's second-largest district, the fourth time they've done so in as many bargaining cycles.

A walkout now can be called with 10 days' notice, but the two sides are in mediation; under those rules, the earliest that St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) leaders could launch a strike countdown would be Feb. 26.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said Monday that teacher talks have always been dynamic and sometimes volatile, but they'd yet to get heated during this round of negotiations.

"I feel like there's a commitment both from the district administration and SPFE bargaining team to get this contract settled," he said, ahead of two mediation sessions this week.

On Thursday, Leah VanDassor, the union's president, described this week's talks as productive.

"We are making progress. We are not just sitting there staring at the wall," she said. "But it's not enough. We need to see a lot more happen."

The district and the union have been wide apart on total dollars. Patricia Pratt-Cook, the district's executive chief of human resources, said the school system budgeted $12.4 million for a new contract and that the union's requests total about $112 million.

This comes at a time when the district is facing a $107.7 million deficit in 2024-25.

On the wage front, the SPFE is pitching teacher pay raises of $7,500 in 2023-24 and 7.5% in 2024-25. The district is offering 2% to 3% in the first year — with its lowest-paid teachers getting the 3% — and 1.75% in the second. Statewide, average salary increases have been 4.3% and 3.4%.

Starting pay for a St. Paul teacher with a bachelor's degree is about $49,000, according to the district's salary schedule. A teacher with a Ph.D. and 20 years of experience earns about $102,000. The district said Friday that nearly half of its teachers are paid more than $90,000.

Wages and benefits are expected to be the focus of mediation sessions on Feb. 23 and March 1.

In addition to compensation increases, the union wants greater staffing on mental health teams, lower health insurance costs and reduced caseloads for special education teachers — the latter of which did see "some forward motion" in this week's talks, VanDassor said.

Hannah Riederer, a special education teacher at St. Paul Music Academy, was among the steady stream of educators who went to cast their votes Thursday afternoon at Carpenters Local Union 322. She's supposed to have 19 students, she said, but her caseload topped that during each of the past two years.

"It is a constant feeling of pressure," she said.

SPFE also represents educational assistants as well as school and community service professionals.

Thursday's strike authorization vote came two years after the two sides narrowly averted a strike, and four years after a walkout cut short by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.