With a possible strike just a week away, the St. Paul School District and its teachers have reported progress in mediation this week, but significant differences remain over money.
The union, in the meantime, is drawing up plans to ensure students have safe places to go if a walkout occurs.
On Monday, the district told St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) negotiators that it was dropping a requirement that the union work with it in on an application to join the state's Q Comp alternative teacher pay program — a move it said could generate about $9 million per year in state and local funding.
But the district also is setting aside for now a union proposal to go to voters this year with a request for more funding for schools. That move requires a community conversation, school board Member Steve Marchese told union leaders.
The federation said it was "good news" that the district offered a counterproposal to its request to pursue new revenue, and pulled Q Comp from the bargaining table. It was encouraged, too, that discussions around class size limits were beginning to "move in the right direction."
Still, there is a wide gulf when it comes to funding.
For months, the district has pushed to limit new contract costs for teachers to about $2.07 million, while the union has pitched a range of proposals to boost pay and improve conditions for students that could cost up to $159 million, according to district estimates.
Union members voted overwhelmingly a week ago to authorize a strike as early as next Tuesday. Since then, a union committee has begun work to create "safe sites" for students if the teachers walk out and the district cancels classes.
Michelle Keleny, lead social worker for the district and a union member, said in a federation news release Tuesday that the committee was tapping into resources across the community and identifying locations. Staffing would not be a problem, she said, "with so many SPFT members ready to volunteer."
Union and district negotiators plan to meet every day this week in hopes of reaching a deal. On Monday, Superintendent Joe Gothard and board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis joined Marchese for the start of the session, but the three did not participate in talks.
The union suggested recently that the two sides look at tapping the district's $35.9 million in unassigned reserved funds to fund non-salary pursuits that include limiting class sizes and increasing the number of social workers and counselors, among other goals. The district said the total actually is about $31 million, and that there are guidelines limiting how fund balances can be used.
During this year's talks, the district told the union that it would not ask voters for more money until it exhausted all existing funding sources, including that available through Q Comp. But the union's executive board continues to balk at entering the program. Last fall, union president Nick Faber raised objections to joining the program, suggesting that someday government leaders might tie Q Comp to an accountability system based solely on test scores. Such a scenario could allow failing schools to be converted into charter schools, he said.
Marchese said Tuesday that while the union and district can disagree over how work is done, and about available resources, they owe it to people to settle in a way that is not divisive and disruptive — and that could be "damaging to the community and the future of the district."
Faber said in Tuesday's news release: "As we have said repeatedly, we will do whatever we can to prevent a strike. However, we also won't stop fighting for what we know our students need."
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109