ST. PAUL — St. Paul district schools closed Tuesday, March 10, for the city’s first teacher strike since 1946.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators announced at 3 a.m. Tuesday that they couldn’t reach a deal on a new two-year contract despite 45 hours of mediation over the last four days.

“District leaders weren’t willing to move on the issues educators and parents know will help students thrive and break down racial barriers in our schools,” union president Nick Faber said in a prepared statement.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said he “offered a commitment to fund a significant number” of the new hires the union requested but it wasn’t enough.

“We all agree our students need additional support, but we must be intentional and responsible when increasing investments in our district,” School board chairwoman Marny Xiong said in a prepared statement. “The SPFE proposals would have forced cuts to programs and would have been unfair to other SPPS collective bargaining units.”

Union negotiators Monday evening unanimously rejected a district proposal that would have kept school open for 37,000 students by taking their dispute to binding 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,” Faber told reporters.

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

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 ruling.

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

Teachers began picketing at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Two dozen schools opened for breakfast Tuesday morning but no children showed up at three sites a reporter visited.

Those schools and many city rec centers also are serving free lunches Tuesday.

Seven schools are expected to open their doors Thursday to up to 4,000 elementary students, providing non-academic activities and supervision from non-striking employees.

State mediators had been brokering sporadic talks since December and will continue to do so during a strike if the parties want their help. The union said it was willing to meet as soon as the district was willing to move on the union proposals.

The union’s stated priority proposals are hiring more mental health professionals, multilingual staffers, special education teachers and restorative practices specialists.

Teachers also have asked for salary schedule increases of 3.4 percent and 2 percent on top of step-and-lane hikes based on education and experience.

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

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 $27 million a year, according to the district.

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.

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.”