ST. PAUL — St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers union were negotiating late into the night Monday, March 9, seeking to prevent the city’s first teacher strike since 1946.

Teachers and other staff represented by the St. Paul Federation of Educators turned in district-owned property as they left work Monday, not knowing when they’d be back. Parents and students went to sleep not knowing if they’d have somewhere to be in the morning.

Hours later, union negotiators unanimously rejected a district proposal that would have kept school open for 37,000 students by taking their labor contract dispute to arbitration.

“A big part of these negotiations has been about the fact that folks who are not in the classroom on a regular basis are telling us what our students need,” union president Nick Faber said.

Arbitration, he said, would let someone even further from the classroom make that call.

Superintendent Joe Gothard made the request Monday afternoon, on the sixth straight day of mediation. He said arbitration would allow both parties to submit their final positions on disputed issues, keeping school in session while they await a binding decision.

“Interest arbitration is a way to ensure kids are in school while the negotiation process continues,” he said.

Both sides said they planned to continue with mediation Monday night as long as they were making progress.

If they were unable to reach a deal, teachers were preparing to picket instead of teach Tuesday morning.

State mediators have been brokering sporadic talks since December and will continue to do so during a strike if the parties want their help.

A teachers union representative said the two sides reached several tentative agreements Sunday but made “no significant movement” on the union’s priority proposals: hiring more mental health professionals, multilingual staffers, special education teachers and restorative practices specialists.

Spending target

One year ago, the school board and district administrators set a spending target for all bargaining units: salary schedule increases of 1.5 percent this school year and 2 percent next year.

For the teachers union contract — which also covers educational assistants and school and community service professionals — that’s a $9.6 million cost increase.

The union’s top proposal alone — hundreds of new hires to install mental health teams at every school — would cost around $30 million a year, according to the district.

“The challenge is if we agree to allocate more resources to satisfy one bargaining unit, it will impact our resources to provide fair contracts with other bargaining units,” board president Marny Xiong said in a statement Sunday. “It will also mean we will need to make cuts to other programs and needs for our schools. The reality is that there isn’t a secret pot of money hiding somewhere.”

In an earlier round of negotiations, the district did offer to exceed its spending target by $1.2 million to hire additional mental health staff.

The union since has asked the district to reprioritize its spending and phase in the mental health hiring over multiple years.

Gothard said Monday he agrees students need more support and that the district already has “500 full-time employees providing behavioral and social-emotional support,” plus another 39 through community partnerships.

While the union has publicly touted its student-centered proposals, it also has proposed pay increases of 3.4 percent and 2 percent.

St. Paul teachers made $75,199 on average last year — second-most among the state’s public school districts.

Erica Schatzlein, the union’s vice president, said a Sunday package proposal from the district offered to pay for some union priorities but at the expense of members’ wages.

“They are trying to pit educators against our students and against our families,” she said. “We are not going to be divided.”

The district’s general fund spending is projected at $576 million this year. The district expects to finish the year with an unassigned fund balance of 5.1 percent of one year’s spending — just above the board’s guideline minimum of 5 percent.

Union leaders

While local union leaders negotiated Monday, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht toured Washington Technology Magnet School along with national teachers union heads Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

Teachers in several large cities have gone on strike the past couple years, calling attention to insufficient teacher pay and unmet student needs. A strike in St. Paul could be the start of a new wave of teacher activism in Minnesota.

Specht said teachers across the state will be ready to walk out of their classrooms next year. She said last year’s biennial state budget, which provided consecutive 2 percent per-student funding increases — totaling $388 million — along with $160 million for special education, preschool and school safety, didn’t do enough.

“It is time to fully and equitably fund our schools,” she said. “We are willing to walk to the Capitol to make our voices heard.”