Teachers unions are strong, but in St. Paul, muscle is being flexed in new ways.

Rather than simply work on behalf of candidates, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers teamed with parents this year to coordinate and bankroll a Caucus for Change movement that challenged incumbents and lifted four political newcomers to prized DFL Party endorsements.

Now, contract talks are underway between the teachers and the school district, and as candidates enter the final weeks of the election, the union could soon find itself with maximum leverage: a new majority on the seven-member board already endorsing its contract pursuits.

At Hallie Q. Brown Community Center recently, the four candidates heard speakers promote union contract proposals, and when commitments were sought, they replied in the affirmative, with an "Amen, brother" thrown in for good measure. The federation is on a roll. Not everyone, however, is enamored of what Superintendent Valeria Silva acknowledged recently to be smart organizing.

"My concern is we have one group, our largest union, that has basically been allowed to dominate the public discussion," board Chairwoman Mary Doran said.

In 2014, hundreds of teachers and parents rallied for what would be a $33 million, two-year teachers contract that, it turns out, the district could not afford.

This year, the union, responding to what federation Vice President Nick Faber said were concerns from parents about unanswered e-mails to board members and a lack of staff support for ambitious classroom moves, launched the Caucus for Change movement that helped deliver DFL nods to first-time candidates Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert.

Helping to fund the effort has been the American Federation of Teachers, which contributed $50,000 to Local 28's political fund.

Two organizers worked full time this spring with caucusgoers.

Now, the federation is going all out with weekend door-knocking for the challengers — one of whom, Schumacher, had raised $27,475 as of Sept. 3, nearly the same amount that current Board Member Chue Vue raised in all of 2013.

Bob Spaulding, a former DFL chair who is backing incumbent Vice Chairman Keith Hardy, said the union maneuvering was an unprecedented power play for a city convention in which only school board endorsements were up for grabs and the rest of labor deferred to the federation.

Last week, he watched video of the Hallie Q. Brown meeting on theuptake.org and said he saw what was billed as a "people's board" meeting become a forum for union contract proposals. He called it a "charade."

Spaulding acknowledged that the challengers bring great life experience to the race. "But, with the complete power shown by the teachers union, they are not going to cross the teachers union anytime soon," he said.

Faber denies that the union has manipulated the process.

"We're just tapping into concerns that the public had about a board that was unresponsive," he said, adding: "Those partnerships came first."

Budget shortfall

In February 2014, the teachers union negotiated an agreement it said would take union-district relations into the 21st century.

It set new class-size limits, and the district agreed to hire 42 new social workers, nurses, media specialists and counselors.

The union got "pretty close" to everything it wanted, district Chief Financial Officer Marie Schrul said recently, despite behind-the-scene estimates that the deal would create a $22.9 million budget shortfall in 2015-16.

This summer, the board, citing budget pressures, put off 10 of the 42 hires, spurring accusations of betrayal.

Parent-teacher teams

At Hallie Q. Brown, Faber, a champion of efforts to heighten teacher-parent engagement, invited Kirinda Anderson, 33, whose daughter Aubree, 9, attends Wellstone Elementary, to speak to the benefits of academic parent-teacher teams, which replace traditional one-on-one parent-teacher conferences with group meetings. Parents discuss achievement goals and learn activities they can do with their children at home.

For Aubree, it was transformative, Kirinda Anderson said later. "I know my child will be a leader."

There was no mention, however, of Q Comp, the alternative teacher pay plan that Silva has said could draw up to $10 million in state and local funds for professional development and other purposes.

Minneapolis teachers agreed to it after controversial pay-for-performance elements were downplayed.

Yet St. Paul union leaders have said repeatedly that members aren't interested and that working on a proposal would be a distraction.

Ellis, who works for the federation's parent-teacher home visit project, later told the Star Tribune she would not commit to asking the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to collaborate with the district on a Q Comp plan. "Q Comp is an unreliable source of funding," she said.

Marchese, a parent and pro bono development director for the state bar association, demurred on the same question, saying it was speculative until it comes up in negotiations.

Schumacher, the leader of a community foundation that supports the arts and innovative learning for kids, said the issue should not be addressed until the district collaborates on a budget that provides adequate and sustainable classroom support for educators, students and schools.

Only Vanderwert, who has worked for 25 years in early-childhood education, expressed interest in the program and in the revenue it could bring — so long as it is not evaluative, she said.

At district headquarters recently, negotiators were asked if they were nervous about the prospect of finalizing a contract deal with as many as four new union-empowered newcomers on the board.

Chief Executive Officer Michelle Walker replied that when board members take the oath of office, they pledge to act in the best interest of the district.

"I trust they will do that," she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036