Talks resumed Thursday between the St. Paul school district and the union representing its teachers and school support staff members.
The two sides hope to craft a deal that would end a strike, which began on Tuesday and is the first of its kind in St. Paul since 1946. Classes have been canceled for Friday.
The reopening of negotiations Thursday coincided with the district’s opening of seven “Kid Space” sites that offer elementary students a safe space to go for daylong activities between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Renee Wanna didn’t want to cross the picket line of striking teachers in St. Paul on Thursday, but her son was going stir-crazy at home, she said.
“He already misses [school],” she said of her son, who ordinarily attends Capitol Hill elementary but was dropped off at Cherokee Heights elementary. “He knows it’s not like a snow day.”
While contract talks continued, many St. Paul schoolchildren made crafts, played with Legos and ran around the gym as part of Kid Space, the district’s free child-care option during the teachers strike.
The environment felt a bit like school — with some familiar faces and meals provided as usual — but without any direct instruction. Students rotated through several activities while being supervised by district teaching assistants and administrators.
District officials said a total of about 800 students showed up at seven different Kid Space sites. Highland Park served 160 kids and 55 students reported to Cherokee Heights. A teacher at Cherokee Heights who is participating in the strike said some students went to the nearby Boys & Girls Club instead.
“The mood’s been really normal with the kids,” said Ryan Fell, the district’s Title I program manager, who was helping out at Highland Park. “A lot of smiles when they got here today — I think they were happy to see friends.”
As parents dropped off children in the morning, many came inside to check out what kids were doing, he said.
Because only seven elementary schools host Kid Space, some students were directed to schools they don’t normally attend. Kids from five schools, for instance, went to Highland Park.
Fell said district officials weren’t sure how many families would take advantage of the program, which won’t provide “direct academic services” during the strike.
Activities mirror those offered by Discovery Club, the fee-based community education program held before and after school. Discovery Club also started Thursday at three schools, he said.
District officials and community education staff came together weeks ago to begin planning alternative options if a strike occurred. On Tuesday, they brought in teaching assistants and gave them roles, Fell said. Parents were told in an e-mail from Superintendent Joe Gothard that because Kid Space sites don’t have nurses, the district might not be able to provide support to students with special medical needs. “We understand that this program will not meet the needs of many families. We apologize for that, but are doing the best we can with limited resources,” the e-mail said.
Teaching assistant Ralph Williams said things were going “pretty good” at Highland Park, given the circumstances. Kids were enjoying activities, he said, without too many meltdowns.
“Is it fun? It’s getting there,” Williams said. “Is it confusing? Of course.”
Many youth don’t seem to know the strike is happening, he said, but they feel the loss of routine.
“It’s not summer school and they know they’re here, so something’s going on,” he said, adding that he’s not sure administrators understand how hard the disruption can be on kids and families.
At Cherokee Heights, teaching assistant Heidi Kasten said the kids were “lovely” and “all getting along.”
“We have a really good staff-to-teacher ratio right now,” she said, estimating that there were dozens of staff members and administrators at school and about 50 kids.
Back to bargaining
On Wednesday night, the union announced that the two sides would return to mediation at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Kevin Burns, a district spokesman, said earlier Wednesday that talks would not resume until one or both sides had something substantively new to offer. District officials were aiming to come up with just such a proposal, he added.
But at a Thursday morning news briefing, Rene Myers, a member of the St. Paul Federation of Educators negotiating team, said that the two sides simply were returning at the mediator’s request. “We don’t know what they’re bringing to us,” she said of any new district offer.
The federation is seeking additional mental health and multilingual supports, as well as more people to work with special-education students. The district has said the demands are too costly for a school system that has suffered enrollment declines and underfunding from the state and federal governments.
On Wednesday, the district said it had sent layoff notices to more than 2,000 employees whose jobs could be in jeopardy in the event of a lengthy strike.
Burns said it was a contractual requirement and that no specific employees or employee groups are being targeted.
Myers, an intervention specialist at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy, said union lawyers are looking into whether the notices constitute an unfair labor action.
Lisa Serrano, a Humboldt High School teaching assistant, said she already received her notice. “I was shocked, sad,” she said. “But with faith on our side, it won’t get to that point.”