ST. PAUL -- St. Paul teachers union leaders ended their strike Friday morning, March 13, saying worries over the coronavirus have forced them to postpone the fight till next year.
School will be back in session Monday for some 37,000 students, who have missed four days of classes. The St. Paul Federation of Educators’ 3,600 members returned to their jobs at 1 p.m. Friday.
“I’m happy to get back to work. It’s been hard,” said a counselor heading into Wellstone Elementary.
Union President Nick Faber said members were resolute about remaining on strike as long as it took to win their student-centered proposals.
“The only thing that was able to stop them and slow them down was a global pandemic,” he told reporters.
Faber accused district leaders of deciding to “play politics with a national health crisis by digging in at the bargaining table.”
Superintendent Joe Gothard rejected that notion, saying at a morning news conference that COVID-19 “did not interfere with our negotiations at all. … We settled the contract to end a strike.”
The school district did not release details of the agreement, which was reached at 3:30 a.m. Friday after a final round of mediation that took over 19 hours.
However, the union said it secured many of the new positions it was seeking, including “social workers, nurses, intervention specialists, psychologists and multilingual staff.”
The deal, they say, also includes:
An expansion of restorative practices to “build positive school climates and held end the school-to-prison pipeline;”
More manageable special education workloads;
Permanent substitute teachers;
Prep time for educational assistants who are interpreters;
Cooperation on pursuing a moratorium on new charter schools.
Just how they accomplished all that is unclear.
The school district started negotiations last spring intending to increase spending by no more than $9.6 million over the two-year contract — enough to raise teacher pay by 1.5 percent this year and 2 percent next year.
“We were able to maintain our board-directed parameters,” Gothard told reporters Friday morning.
Asked if the superintendent is correct, Faber said the district “shifted resources” to meet some of the union’s proposals.
Neither side is saying how much of the new spending is going toward wage increases as opposed to the union’s long list of proposals to hire additional staff.
Faber said the district did agree to spend some additional money since the strike began.
Gothard said that since the strike, “We all had to evaluate our positions, our values and see how we could come together.”
The top stated priority for the teachers union was a mental health team at every school with student ratios determining how many staffers are hired. The district said during negotiations that that proposal alone would have cost around $27 million.
Gothard said the contract agreement around mental health allows him to look at the district as a whole and decide where to add staff.
“Those staff are going to be added based on need,” he said.
The union has not said when members will vote on the tentative agreement.
Unlike in 2018, when a contract agreement was reached one day before a planned strike, the teachers union and school district held separate press conferences Friday to discuss the tentative deal.
Faber said the union will be ready to fight for better schools again when they start negotiating the 2021-2023 contract next year.
“Did we get everything we want? No, but we’re already getting ready for the next time,” he said, adding that members are “ready to pick right back up.”
The Friday morning deal came hours after governors in five states announced public schools would close in hopes of controlling the spread of COVID-19. Classes were canceled for two weeks or more in Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon and Michigan, as well as Washington D.C. and some other large metro districts.
Minnesota health officials said Thursday and reiterated Friday that they don’t advise closing all schools here.
However, the state has discouraged large gatherings that could spread the disease. Some of the largest gatherings in St. Paul this week have been the daily rallies of striking teachers.
Faber said the union didn’t want to put itself in a position where striking members were “quarantined out while they were on strike and therefore without pay and without leverage, as well.”
On Wednesday, a building steward’s email to strikers at one school acknowledged teachers’ virus-related concerns about the rallies; it said union leaders were hoping to resolve the contract before the virus became a “huge problem.”
St. Paul Public Schools officials said earlier this week they’re preparing for the possibility of having to deliver instruction online. Many colleges and universities in Minnesota and elsewhere already have decided to suspend face-to-face instruction.
The four-day strike leaves the school district with no extra days in its calendar for weather- or virus-related cancellations without falling short of the state’s minimum instruction hours. However, state lawmakers did give schools statewide a break on instruction hours last year after snow and cold caused more cancellations than usual.