St. Paul teachers and school support staff members voted Thursday to authorize a strike against the state's second-largest district — the second time in as many bargaining cycles they've taken that action.
Union leaders now can call a strike with 10 days' notice and plan to announce a date next week.
"No one wants to strike, but St. Paul educators are fed up," Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), said in a news release. "District leaders aren't listening to the people who know our students best — the educators and parents who are with them every day."
Superintendent Joe Gothard expressed disappointment and said the district was in a tough spot financially.
Nearly two-thirds of SPFE's approximately 3,550 members voted, and of those who voted, 82% voted to authorize a strike, the union said. On Friday, Faber declined to give the number of members voting for and against, saying he'd been authorized to speak only about percentages.
The vote followed a mediation session Wednesday during which the SPFE reported "no significant movement" on priorities that have included the establishment of mental health teams in every building and increased supports for multilingual families.
The two sides also differ on pay, with the district offering 1.5% and 2% increases over two years, and SPFE pursuing 3.4% and 2% salary hikes.
Talks began last spring and find the union again — for a fifth consecutive contract period — employing a strategy known as "bargaining for the common good." That means pushing for better working conditions for teachers and enhanced supports for students — more counselors, social workers and the like.
Districts say such proposals infringe on managerial rights and are costly as well.
Two years ago, when SPFE brought the district to the brink of a strike, the two sides ultimately agreed to the hiring of 30 new teachers of English language learners and 23 people to work with special-education students. The district said it was able to stay within its goal of limiting new costs then to $4.5 million over two years by winning compromises in other areas of the contract. Teachers received 1% pay increases each year.
For current bargaining, the district has said it has about $9.6 million in new money available over two years for SPFE members, who in addition to teachers also include educational assistants and school and community service professionals.
Gothard said the district offered this week to invest an additional $1.2 million in the area of mental health supports. The proposal covers districtwide efforts but not building-level supports, leading SPFE to describe it as "insulting to the educators who are struggling to meet students' needs."
In a prepared statement, Gothard said, "We are extremely disappointed our educators continue down a path toward a strike. Our students, families, co-workers and community expect all of us to work together and avoid a strike, and that's what I am committed to doing.
"As superintendent and as an SPPS parent, I know the uncertainty that talk of a strike brings to our students, families and community," he continued. "I can assure you the district is doing everything possible to reach an agreement before a strike happens."
Gothard said he has instructed district bargaining team members to be ready for mediation at a moment's notice, including on nights and weekends.
The next scheduled session is on March 5.
After negotiating their previous two-year deal, the district and educators teamed in 2018 to win voter approval of additional levy funding that this year was expected to bring in $17.3 million.
But enrollment woes persist. This year, St. Paul exceeded a projected loss of 625 students by an additional 323, resulting in a $4.4 million revenue hit to the 2019-20 budget. Next year, the district is facing a $9.9 million deficit, according to a budget survey released this week by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.