School employees target Kline in fight to restore special education cuts

SEIU Local 284 President Keith Niemi talks to management and security staff in the West St. Paul SuperTarget.

SEIU Local 284 President Keith Niemi talks to management and security staff in the West St. Paul SuperTarget.

John Kline has enough influence in Congress to make reversing federal cuts to education a priority. But who has influence enough to get the 2nd District Congressman’s attention?

Target Corporation does, according to members of Service Employees International Union Local 284.

In an unannounced visit to Target’s West St. Paul location yesterday, activists attempted to deliver a letter asking Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel to use his company’s considerable clout with Kline to push for restoration of $9.2 million in education funds Minnesota schools lost as a result of federal sequestration cuts this year.

Kline chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, charged with oversight of federal funding for special education.

“We all know that Target has a very powerful voice and presence in education in Minnesota,” Local 284 President Keith Niemi told store managers at the West St. Paul SuperTarget. “We also know that Target is the biggest contributor to Rep. Kline’s campaign, and that Rep. Kline will listen to Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel.”

Target has given $12,500 to Kline’s campaign and his “Freedom and Security PAC” so far during the 2014 election cycle, according to opensecrets.org. Only New York Life Insurance has donated more.

The funds Minnesota schools lost to sequestration were intended to support education for children with disabilities. The $9.2 million cut means about 110 school employees will lose their jobs, according to a White House estimate.

That doesn’t sit well with Melissa Demers, the mother of a child with special needs enrolled in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Schools. Demers praised Target for its charitable giving to Minnesota school districts, but she added, “Without people working, the paper and the crayons are not going to do anything for these students.”

Niemi, whose union represents more than 8,000 school employees, added: “Our special education students cannot be expected to succeed with fewer paraprofessionals, fewer teachers and fewer resources that result from cuts in funding for the education of Minnesota’s children.”

Store management and security personnel would not accept the letter to Steinhafel, and union members left the store peaceably.

Outside, Kline’s constituents said they doubted their congressman would get the message.

“With Target being a supporter and advocate of Rep. Kline – and of education – I’m disappointed they would not even deliver a letter for us,” Inver Grove Heights resident Mary deLeon Denton said.

A member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Denton has “seen the impact of budget shortfalls on special-education programming and staff” during her 34-year career as an educator.

So, too, has Valorie Rolstad, a Local 284 member who works as a special-education paraprofessional in the Columbia Heights district. When she first took the job, Rolstad was one of 60-plus paraprofessionals in the district. “Now we are just maintaining at 30,” she said.

Local 284 is asking supporters to contact Kline and tell him to stop education cuts due to sequestration. Call Kline at 952-808-1213, or e-mail him at kline.house.gov.

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