ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Striking St. Paul teachers are going back to work after union leaders reached a tentative agreement Friday with district administrators, citing the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak as a factor in the decision to settle their contract dispute.
The settlement brought an end to a three-day strike that saw 36,000 students out of classes and teachers picketing schools in Minnesota’s capital and second-largest city.
The 3,550-member union of teachers and other school employees walked out of negotiations early Tuesday morning after a nine-month stalemate with the district on the terms of its contract. Teachers cited the need for more support staff, including nurses, school counselors, social workers and multilingual staff in the district as one of their chief concerns.
The St. Paul Federation of Educators, or SPFE, came back to the bargaining table Thursday morning and announced the end of the strike shortly after 4 a.m. Friday. Details of the agreed-upon contract have not been published pending ratification by union membership, but a union press release promised an increase in support staff, wage increases, building-based substitute teachers and an agreement to call for a moratorium on new charter schools.
The deal also includes prep time for educational assistants who also work as interpreters, union said, along with a commitment to “expanding restorative practices to build positive school climates and help end the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“We are glad to reach an agreement with our educators,” school district superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement. “Through hours of compromise and a laser focus on placing students above all else, we have a new two-year agreement that targets resources to areas of greatest need.”
Meanwhile, 36,000 students are expected to return to school on Monday. The school district set up daytime child-care centers Thursday for elementary school children displaced by the strike.
“I fully realize the strike has caused anxiety and uncertainty for our students, families, staff and community,” Gothard said. “I am grateful for your patience and I promise to rebuild trust that may have been lost through this process. We have an amazing and dedicated staff ready to see our students back in our hallways and in our classrooms.”
SPFE President Nick Faber offered a less rosy view of the agreement.
“Only an unprecedented pandemic and concern over the health and safety of our students and staff stopped St. Paul educators from fighting harder and longer for more resources for our children,” he said, citing the coronavirus outbreak. “Unfortunately, district leaders decided to play politics with a national health crisis by digging in at the bargaining table. They decided to put their own pride before the health and wellness of St. Paul students and educators.”
He elaborated on the coronavirus concerns at a press conference.
“Nobody’s written a bargaining handbook about the intersection of negotiations and a global pandemic,” Faber said. “Our team was looking at kind of new territory in what that meant.”
He added, “As a union leader, I needed to be responsible, and our bargaining team needed to be responsible, and make sure we didn’t get ourselves caught in a situation where our members were quarantined out while they were on strike, and therefore without pay and without leverage as well. And so we needed to make some quick decisions on that.”
Asked whether he was able to move the district on its proposed increased spending figure of $9.6 million, Faber deferred. The union had proposed staffing and wage increases which the school district had estimated would cost as much as $50 million.
“The superintendent and others have brought up numerous times that this is a funding issue, which is real,” Faber said. “Educators and students are constantly being told they have to wait for the legislature to do their job to get what they feel is necessary to make their classroom successful. And what we were saying was, why can’t some of the projects of the fifth floor of [district headquarters at] 360 Colborne wait until the legislature comes through, and make sure that the things that our educators are asking for get funded now?”
Both Faber and the district declined to share details of the agreement prior to ratification. Faber was hesitant to provide a specific timeline for ratification, but said that the union would be holding several information sessions to inform its membership on the contract’s details.
The relationship between the union and the district remains frosty, and Faber said he anticipates more struggles as negotiations begin for the union’s next two-year contract. More immediately, he said, the union’s legal counsel will be in contact with the district regarding over 2,000 layoffs of teaching assistants – represented not by SPFE, but by Teamsters Local 320 – in connection with the strike.
Courthouse News reporter Andy Monserud’s mother is a teacher and SPFE member who was involved in the strike. Neither she nor any of her co-workers were contacted for this story.