St. Paul teachers returned to work Friday afternoon after a three-day strike that disrupted lives and sent thousands marching in the streets.
The teachers union and the school district announced a deal about 4 a.m. Friday, a day after resuming talks at the urging of Gov. Tim Walz. Classes are scheduled to resume on Monday.
At Central High School, cars filled the parking lot as teachers returned to work, and red-and-white picket signs were stuffed into a nearby garbage can. Inside the school, refreshments piled up by the entrance and teachers wearing red cheerfully greeted one another.
Several teachers said they were happy to return to the building, despite not knowing exactly what the union had agreed to.
“I guess I don’t feel like it’s over,” said Brian Knox, who teaches music production. “I think we only started making the point we were trying to make.”
Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), said at a news conference Friday that the union negotiated “some great tentative agreements that we’re proud of,” including wage increases and more staff. But he emphasized that teachers were prepared to stay on the picket lines and that they will continue organizing.
“I want to be clear,” he said. “The only thing that was able to stop them and slow them down was a global pandemic.”
At district headquarters, School Board Chairwoman Marny Xiong called the past couple of days “painful and exhausting for our community,” and Superintendent Joe Gothard apologized to students and families.
“You rely on me to lead this district and provide the supports necessary to provide an excellent education to your children,” Gothard said. “I know the days you waited for us to finalize this contract have been challenging.”
With virus-related school closures increasing nationally, it was best for everyone to settle, the union said in a news release early Friday. But Faber indicated in the release that the deal fell short of what the union wanted, and he accused district leaders of playing politics with the COVID-19 crisis by digging in at the bargaining table and putting “their own pride before the health and wellness of St. Paul students and educators.”
At the district’s news conference, Gothard pushed back.
“I will not allow a distraction like COVID-19, something that is a pandemic across this world, to tarnish what we accomplished in negotiations,” he said. “It did not interfere with our negotiations at all.”
The deal came together at the end of a week in which union leaders went from bystanders to full participants in a national #RedforEd movement that has shut down schools to boost teacher pay, and in St. Paul’s case, support for students. The strike, the district’s first in more than 70 years, drew state and national attention.
“St. Paul educators stood up for their kids — in the middle of a pandemic — to fund our future and get them the support they deserve,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who rallied with the teachers on Tuesday, said in a statement.
Both Faber and Gothard declined to give specific details about the two-year contract. Gothard said pay increases will be about 1.5% this year and 2% next year.
The union said the deal calls for more social workers, nurses, psychologists and intervention specialists — all part of the mental health supports it cited as its top priority — as well as additional multilingual staff members, more manageable special-education workloads and an expansion in approaches to student discipline that stress relationship-building over punitive steps — also known as restorative practices.
The two sides also agreed to press for a moratorium on new charter schools, which have contributed to an enrollment decline in St. Paul, and in turn, a drop in state aid to the state’s second-largest district.
Gothard had cited declining enrollment and underfunding by the state and federal governments as reasons the district could not back union demands that he said totaled more than $50 million in increased spending.
“Our schools are severely underfunded, and we know that,” Faber said. “But at the end of the day, what we were saying at the table is, given that context, the district still has a budget and still has a certain pot of money.”