St. Paul teachers and school support staff are set to strike March 10 unless a deal is reached in talks resuming Friday.
The executive board of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) announced the date Wednesday morning as members carried signs pushing for mental health and multilingual supports during informational picketing outside schools districtwide.
At Adams Spanish Immersion School, Nick Faber, the union's president, acknowledged that strikes can be scary for everyone, and disruptive to families, as well.
"But they should know that educators are out doing this because they're fighting for their kids," he said.
At district headquarters, the mood was somber Wednesday afternoon, as Superintendent Joe Gothard and other officials detailed plans to provide safe spaces for kids if there is a walkout — an outcome they repeatedly said they are working hard to avoid.
"I cannot be more clear by stating my disappointment that it has come to this," Gothard said. "We have incredible students, staff and families and we depend on them each day to open our doors for learning, growth, and most of all, community."
The union and district remain divided on compensation as well as SPFE proposals to increase student and teacher supports.
Topping the list is the proposed establishment of mental health teams in every building. Under that proposal, each team would include a social worker, counselor, nurse and behavior intervention specialist, and the district would hire more psychologists, too.
When talks began, the district said it had $9.6 million in new money available over two years for a new SPFE contract. But Gothard said last week he now was willing to invest an additional $1.2 million in mental health supports districtwide.
"It isn't enough," Faber said Wednesday in comments echoing those in a recent interview.
He said the union and the district had common goals they should work to achieve. He added he could suggest ideas on how district negotiators could make things happen, but he did not want to do their work, too.
"They're not thinking creatively," he said.
Gothard said Wednesday that a proposal to add guaranteed staffing ratios to every school was "not a strategy I wish to implement at this time."
In addition to Friday's mediation session, the two sides are scheduled to meet on March 5 and 6. The district also wants to add sessions on Saturday and Sunday. The union's executive board told members in an e-mail Wednesday that a small group would meet on Saturday to discuss special education and that more meetings "are in the works."
The union faces the challenge of winning new hires and a pay raise in a tight fiscal environment.
On Wednesday, Gothard and school board Chairwoman Marny Xiong emphasized the challenges that come with declining enrollment and reduced support from the state and federal governments. The last time the state adjusted state aid to school districts to match inflation was 2003, Gothard said — and St. Paul Public Schools now faces a $640 gap per student, as a result.
Plans for what would occur during a strike were similar to those outlined two years ago when a walkout also was threatened.
All prekindergarten through 12th-grade classes would be canceled, as would after-school activities, early childhood special education and adult community education, Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, said.
Varsity athletics would continue, she added.
At least eight elementary schools would remain open for students in kindergarten through 5th grades from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with activities, meals and transportation provided for free, Turner said. There also would be more than 20 locations where anyone under 18 could get free breakfast and lunch, she said.
Students in grades six through 12 would be encouraged to take their iPads home and do online activities the district provides.
After a strike, the school calendar could be changed or extended to account for lost time, Turner said.
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