Teachers to large nonprofits: ‘We all have a stake’ in St. Paul schools

St. Paul teachers marched through the city’s skyway system earlier this month to draw attention to their campaign for fully funded schools.

Tom Stinson, a school nurse at Harding Senior High, sat across a table from two representatives of Allina Health last month and painted an unsettling picture.

“Our kids will usually go to the nurse in their school eight times before they access any health care outside the school,” Stinson said. “They don’t get to the doctor’s office for various reasons, like lack of transportation or co-payments. We have kids that come in every day with serious health needs.”

Harding is lucky enough to have a full-time nurse, but that isn’t the case for all public schools in St. Paul. It’s just one example, Stinson and other educators say, of the challenges the district faces in serving a diverse population, plagued by systemic racism and high rates of poverty.

So where does Allina come into the picture?

The not-for-profit health care provider owns United Hospital and 23 other properties in St. Paul, with an estimated market value of $178 million. Allina operates like a large corporation, paying its CEO over $1 million and stacking its board of directors with executives from Piper Jaffray, Buffalo Wild Wings and other businesses. Allina’s net income was $199 million in 2015, and it maintained an investment portfolio worth over $1 billion.

Despite the corporate sheen, Allina’s property-tax burden on those 24 buildings in St. Paul looks the same as any shoestring nonprofit’s. The same can be said for property owned by HealthPartners, Health East and private colleges like Macalester, St. Thomas and St. Catherine.

The abundance of large nonprofits in St. Paul – combined with development deals that shield large corporations like US Bank and Wells Fargo from property taxes – restricts the revenue St. Paul’s school district can collect. But rather than throw their hands up in frustration, Stinson and other members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers are reaching out to corporations and large non-profits to discuss ways they could voluntarily pay the city and the district for services they expect, from police and fire to public schools.

“Schools and nonprofits are able to attract top talent to Minnesota in part because of the reputation of our public school systems,” said Erica Schatzlein, a teacher at Nokomis Montessori who took part in the union’s meeting with St. Kate’s. “People want to work in a community that is also a good place to raise a family.

“We all have a stake in the next generation of Minnesotans, and we are all responsible for nurturing and supporting them. These large nonprofits and schools are currently not doing their part to support our public schools students, even though they’re using our schools to help in recruiting talent, and they’ll be looking to hire our students as they grow up.”

SPFT’s conversations with large nonprofits and corporations are taking place against the backdrop of ongoing contract talks with the district. A sense of scarcity looms over negotiations, with the district facing a projected budget shortfall of $27 million.

Teachers have offered 10 proposals in bargaining, developed after meetings with parents and community stakeholders. They include a scaled-back reliance on testing, expanded access to preschool, smaller class sizes and increased family engagement – all elements, teachers say, that go into creating the racially equitable schools St. Paul students deserve.

But in a nod to the district’s budget shortfall, teachers’ first proposal was that the union and district collaborate on efforts to seek funding from corporations and major nonprofits. So far, the district has refused – a decision Stinson called “disappointing but not surprising.”

Several non-profits and corporations already support charitable initiatives in the St. Paul schools. Among nonprofits, Allina led the way with a contribution of $60,300 over a two-year period ending June 30, while Ecolab doled out 80 grants of $2,400 to St. Paul teachers who submitted applications to the company.

Still, the amounts add up to a fraction of what the organizations would otherwise be paying in taxes. And teachers note that supporting pet initiatives skirts the democratic process school districts use to prioritize spending.

“Are they doing anything legally wrong? No,” Stinson acknowledged. “But they’re dodging their responsibility as corporate citizens who reside in the city. If they would just pay their fair share like everyone else, everybody would be praising them.”

Julia Shepherd, a Harding teacher and Macalester alum, walked away from a meeting with college president David Rosenberg feeling hopeful, noting that Rosenberg is “deeply devoted to matters of racial equity.”

“I reminded President Rosenberg that this fall I received an email from Macalester asking me to contribute as an alum to their Annual Fund,” Shepherd said. “The subject line read, ‘We live our values.’

“That’s why I was there.”

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