St. Paul Schools, teachers reach tentative agreement

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker (left) and Superintendent Valeria Silva reviewed the contents of the tentative agreement with media members Feb. 24.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker (left) and Superintendent Valeria Silva reviewed the contents of the tentative agreement with media members Feb. 24.

Three days before members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers were scheduled to take a strike-authorization vote, negotiators for the school district and the teachers’ union reached a tentative agreement on a two-year contract that will run through the 2014-15 school year.

Teachers planned a ratification vote for March 4, and the union’s executive board has recommended members vote to approve.

The tentative agreement was the result of a 24-hour mediation session between the two sides that began Feb. 20. Joined by a state mediator and some members of the Board of Education, negotiators worked through the night.

After months of frustrating talks, SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker said, “the momentum was there the entire night, the engagement was there.”

As a result, instead of voting on whether to authorize a strike Feb. 24, teachers held a membership meeting to review details of the agreement, which Ricker said was an important step in efforts to “reclaim the school experiences that have been lost due to tightened budgets or encroaching standardized tests.”

Both the union and school administrators touted “key provisions” of the contract – and related agreements reached in bargaining – that, they say, will make progress on the teachers’ core bargaining principles. Known as “The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve,” the teachers’ guiding principles were developed after intensive outreach to parents and community stakeholders.

Chief among those priorities was lowering class sizes in the district. The tentative agreement will deliver more consistency and predictability in class sizes, while making the formula for calculating class-size restrictions more transparent, Ricker said.

The agreement also sets lower limits for class sizes in the 30 schools with the highest levels of poverty in the district, to “make sure resources get where students need them to go,” Ricker said.

The SPFT also made professional support staffing – media specialists, nurses, school counselors and social workers – a priority in negotiations, and the district committed to hiring 42 professionals in those fields.

Language in the agreement will reduce in-class time spent on standardized testing and test preparation activities over the next two years – another union priority – and calls for a “review of existing assessments for cultural relevance,” Ricker said.

Additionally, the district agreed to spend at least $6 million per school year to maintain and expand its pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds.

Teachers made pre-K access a rallying cry at mobilization events in the weeks leading up to the strike vote, but SPPS Superintendent Valeria Silva said the district was always on board with increasing early-education investments. “We both needed to see it, and we got it into a wonderful agreement between the district and the union,” Silva said.

Ricker agreed the tentative agreement was a win-win for teachers and administrators. “You can’t see where the union’s proposal ends and the district’s proposal begins anymore because it’s such a blend,” she said.

The tentative agreement calls for salary and benefit increases amounting to 8.6 percent over the course of two years. Silva said the district remained “committed to providing a really competitive wage” to attract and retain teachers.

By scheduling a strike vote, the teachers’ union may have hastened the pace of negotiations. “I think maybe we were able to listen to each other a little better than before,” Silva acknowledged.

Still, at a press conference to review details of the agreement, the superintendent, union president and school board chair gave no indication the threat of strike had poisoned the labor-management relationship.

“We are nationally known for working well with our unions,” Board Chair Mary Doran said, “and we want to get back to that.”

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