St. Paul educators to district: ‘We’re here for our students’

Union members rally outside the St. Paul Public Schools district offices.

 

The parking lot outside St. Paul Public Schools’ district offices was a sea of red – #RedForEd – before Tuesday night’s school board meeting, as staff frustrated by contract negotiations rallied behind their unions’ student-centered demands.

The public demonstration brought together members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators and Teamsters Local 320, as well as parents, elected officials and supporters from the labor community.

After 30 minutes of speeches, chants and music in the parking lot, union members filed into the building and packed the school board’s chambers. Several took the microphone during a public-comment period to reinforce their bargaining proposals.

SPFE member Rachel Stohlmann, a special-ed teacher at Benjamin E. Mays school, told board members her union’s demands reflect the urgent needs educators see in their schools each day.

“Instead of urgency at the bargaining table, we are being met with platitudes about how our proposals sound great, but there’s just no money in the budget,” Stohlmann said. “If you want SPPS to achieve, you need to use your power as a school board to adjust the budget to meet more than just the basic needs of your students and your educators.”

Educators dressed in #RedForEd pack the St. Paul school board meeting Jan. 21.

Fighting for students

Negotiations between SPFE and the district began last May. After nine public sessions, during which union members offered 31 proposals, the two sides agreed in November to move talks behind closed doors and enlist the help of a state mediator.

But the bargaining teams remained far apart after their latest mediated session Jan. 16, according to educators, who said SPPS had not yet responded to most of their proposals. “They have refused to discuss any proposals that will cost money,” SPFE’s bargaining team said in a statement.

The nature of some union proposals, educators say, has rankled district officials.

Instead of focusing exclusively on wages and benefits, SPFE members in recent years have approached bargaining as their window of opportunity to influence how the district serves its students and families.

SPFE calls it “bargaining for the schools St. Paul children deserve,” and the strategy – gathering member and community input, identifying areas of need and proposing student-centered solutions – has compelled the district to take action on class sizes, professional staffing, restorative conflict-resolution practices and more.

But this is the first round of contract negotiations since the district installed a five-year strategic plan, “SPPS Achieves.” Nick Faber, SPFE’s president, accused district negotiators of using the plan as a shield to deflect union members’ proposals.

“Classroom teachers were not significantly involved in the strategic planning process, and now the district is acting very surprised that we are demanding these things we’ve brought to the table,” Faber said.

Urgent needs

Educators’ top priority at the bargaining table this year is improving mental-health supports for their students. SPFE wants the district to hire more social workers, provide teachers with relevant training and install a “mental-health team” in every school building.

Union members like Sarah Kaufenberg, who teaches kindergarten at Benjamin E. Mays, say their students’ mental-health needs often go unmet, creating barriers to learning that spread throughout the classroom.

“We have students whose parents are incarcerated or in medical facilities, who have been through a lot of trauma in their lives, and they have nobody to talk to but the teachers in their classrooms,” Kaufenberg said. “They’re in survival mode, and without support, we just are not able to provide them with what they need.”

Lindsay Walker, an art teacher in the same building, said the school’s lone counselor too often is forced to “triage” the needs of students, tending only to those most visibly distressed.

“A student who is hungry or a student experiencing homelessness, their needs should be met just as much as somebody who is having a behavior crisis,” Walker said. “Right now our staff is being pulled in too many directions at once.”

Additionally, educators have proposed “weighted caseloads” for special-ed teachers. Rather than assigning the same number of students to each teacher, they want caseloads to reflect the severity of students’ needs.

“Our special-ed teachers are burning out left and right,” Stohlmann said. “Other districts are taking this approach, and teachers see it working. So we have teachers leaving all the time.”

And education assistants represented by SPFE have spearheaded the union’s proposal to bolster support systems for multilingual students and families.

“How can students be successful if we have a lack of communication?” SPFE member Yasmin Muridi, recently named the state’s Education Support Professional of the Year, asked at the rally. “Frustrations on this issue are building slowly, and one day our parents will burst like a volcano and leave the district. And I don’t want that.”

SPFE President Nick Faber (R) hands the mic to Teamsters Local 320 member Dallas Robertson, a teaching assistant in the St. Paul Schools.

Teamsters fight for training

Teamsters Local 320, meanwhile, co-sponsored the rally with SPFE. The union represents teaching assistants who are also in contract bargaining with the St. Paul Public Schools.

Teaching assistants’ top priority, Local 320 member Dallas Robertson said, is making the district’s training programs more accessible.

“Even though we work with students all day, every school day, we don’t have any days in our contract set aside for us to further our learning with other educators,” said Robertson, a TA at American Indian Magnet School. “We want to learn how to serve our students better, but the current system of requiring TA’s to pursue professional development on our own time … is not working for our members – not when these opportunities are offered when many of our TA’s are working second or third jobs.”

The district, Robertson added, has told TA’s any new funds for training will have to come out of union members’ wage increases, even though TA’s make just $16,000 per year to start in the district.

‘Open your eyes’

So what does the district want to achieve in bargaining new contracts with educators?

Faber said administrators have proposed making it easier to put teachers on performance-improvement plans, increasing the waiting period before new hires are eligible for benefits and limiting employees’ access to union leave.

“The message is clear,” Faber told members at the rally. “Our district wants to take stuff away. And for educators who are with students every day, they want you to sit down, shut up, take what you’ve been given and do what you’re told. And they also want you to take the blame.”

Still, classroom teachers like Kaufenberg are holding out hope administrators – or their bosses on the school board – can be persuaded to take educators’ demands seriously.

“Maybe they need to join us in our classrooms,” she said. “Spend a couple hours with us, spend a day with us, spend a week with us, and you’ll see it. And if you don’t see it, then you have to open your eyes.”

Trackbacks

  1. […] The district’s negotiations with Local 320 took place as the district also negotiated contracts with the St. Paul Federation of Educators, covering about 3,600 district employees. Both unions put student-centered proposals at the forefront of their contract campaigns, and they teamed up to turn out more than 100 supporters to a rally before a school board meeting last month. […]

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