MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A two-week teachers’ strike approached an end Friday as Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers announced a tentative agreement on contracts for teachers and education support professionals.
School has been out in Minneapolis since the teachers’ union went on strike on March 8, citing differences with the school district on pay, class sizes and mental health supports for students. Bargainers came to a tentative agreement early Friday morning and the district announced that students would return to class on Monday, pending an agreement on that issue with the union.
Union leaders did not confirm that point in a press conference Friday afternoon, saying that they were still negotiating a return-to-work agreement. They did confirm that they’d secured an increase in pay for education support professionals– a broad category that encompasses bus support staff, before- and after-school program staff and translators, among others– from a starting wage of $19.83 per hour to $23.91 per hour. That fell short of their target of a $35,000 annual starting wage, ESP bargaining unit member Shaun Laden said, but came close.
Two years of step increases are also included in the tentative deal, and temporary agreements have satisfied the union’s demand for increased hours for ESPs.
“The collective action of our members has shown that strikes work. We know that we needed fundamental change in the Minneapolis public schools, and that’s what this was about,” Laden said. “What we’ve said all along is that we don’t have a budget crisis, we have a values and priorities crisis. And I think what our members have proven is that is the case.”
Laden and teachers' unit president Greta Callahan said the agreement also provides protections from layoffs for teachers and ESPs of color, a hot topic in a city not far removed from the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The exact terms of those provisions were unclear, but union and district officials have said details would be released to members Friday.
Laden and Callahan made no mention of increased pay for teachers or reduced class sizes, but Callahan said they had secured mental health support teams in elementary schools and a social worker in each school building.
School board member Kim Ellison and Superintendent Ed Graff held their own press conference Friday morning. They gave few details as to the nuts and bolts of the agreement, but Graff said that while the process had been difficult, “at the end of the day, we were all able to come together and tentatively agree upon what I believe is a fair contract.”
Graff said that a breakthrough came early Friday morning, between 3 and 4 a.m., with the district reaching agreement first with the teachers and then the ESPs. The exact nature of what changed remains unclear.
Graff and the school administration have maintained throughout bargaining that the union’s demands for smaller class sizes, higher pay and more student mental health support could not be reconciled with the district’s budget. At the beginning of the strike, he said the gap between the district and union’s proposals approached $100 million, and even before the strike the district projected a $21.5 million budget shortfall in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
Teachers, meanwhile, said raises were necessary to keep them from fleeing to nearby, better-paying districts like St. Paul and the wealthy southwestern suburb of Edina, which boasts the highest teacher pay in the state.
Democratic Governor Tim Walz, a former teacher himself, praised the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services in a tweet and used the opportunity to boost his proposed budget, which would add $2.5 billion to public school budgets out of the state’s burgeoning $9 billion budget surplus. Walz has stayed largely quiet on the strike until now.
Having 28,700 students out of classes has made for a tense two weeks in Minneapolis, with families scrambling to find child care in the midst of Covid-19-caused complications. School is also expected to be pushed well into June as a result of the missed days.
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