ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Public school teachers went on strike Tuesday morning in Minnesota’s capital city, demanding more support staff in the second-largest school district in the state.
Classes were cancelled citywide for the school district’s 37,000 students as members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) picketed their schools and led a march to district headquarters to scold Superintendent Joe Gothard.
The 3,550-member union, which represents all the district’s teachers and many of its support staff, has been in negotiations with the district since May to decide its two-year contract for the 2020-22 school years. The sticking point, union leaders and the district said, is primarily the union’s demand for 300 new support-staff positions. Those positions, the union said, include nurses, counselors and social workers, along with language staff to serve the city’s burgeoning immigrant communities.
Micha Langenberg, a school counselor at Central High School – the city’s second-largest high school with 1,800 students – said the school had only one mainstream social worker. A 2018 referendum, which raised school funding by $475 per student, did not improve that, he said.
“It’s appalling to me, as someone who’s been in the district for five years,” Langenberg said, noting that the superintendent had received a substantial raise since the referendum.
Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) has derided the union’s demands as extravagant.
“I want to make it clear: I believe our students need and deserve additional support. That has never been in question,” Gothard said in a statement. “However, we must prioritize our spending because we have limited resources. We need to place new investments where they are needed most. This is what SPPS proposed as a responsible way to increase student support and remain accountable.”
Gothard and the district said that the union’s proposals, which included staff increases and teacher pay hikes totaling over $50 million, were too far over the schools’ own $9.1 million proposals.
SPFE members aren’t buying that argument.
“It’s not a budget problem. This is a priority problem,” SPFE President Nick Faber told the marchers Tuesday.
Special education instructor Jeff Garcia concurred. “We imagine a future where instead of bungling millions of dollars on construction projects, we have a nurse in every school,” he said.
In 2019, the school district announced that it was $179 million over initial estimates on 18 school construction projects.
Rumblings of a strike circulated for six days in St. Paul after SPFE filed notice of a potential walk-out. The official call came at 3 a.m. Tuesday, with picketing starting at 7 a.m.
The St. Paul Police Department estimated that about 1,000 turned out for the rally. SPFE’s members were joined by local students and activists, clad in the union’s red stocking caps. Cars honked horns at marchers along the city’s West Seventh street and a local bar opened its doors to the strikers. Faber concluded the afternoon march with a call to return to the picket lines at 7 a.m. the next day.
The strike brought in a wide variety of local allies, including former gubernatorial candidate and state Representative Erin Murphy, who is now running for the state Senate. Teamsters Local 120 brought a truck to the rally, and Minnesota Senator and former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar expressed her support for the union on Twitter.
Speaking at the rally were American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association leaders, including a veteran from last year’s 11-day walkout in Chicago. “I want St. Paul to show Chicago,” she said, “Are you ready to shut it down?”
While one teacher blanched at the idea of going as long as the Chicago strikers, both sides are gearing up for the long haul. The school district plans to open seven sites to care for students in fifth grade and under during the school day starting Thursday. Several strikers said they expected the impasse to last out the week, and leadership said they would stay out as long as it took.
“This is a righteous strike,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said. “And that is why we are striking: to help our children thrive.”
Andy Monserud’s mother is a teacher and SPFE member involved in the strike. Neither she nor any of her co-workers were interviewed for this story.