St. Paul educators settle contract, pivot to supporting Minneapolis strikers

SPFE members joined their union’s solidarity march with members of the Minneapolis Federation of Educators last month.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators called off plans to strike this week after reaching a settlement in last-ditch negotiations with the district Monday night, just hours before picket lines were scheduled to go up at school buildings across the capital city.

With a tentative agreement in hand, St. Paul educators urged support for their union siblings in Minneapolis, where 4,000 members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and its chapter of education support professionals began an open-ended strike yesterday.

The Minneapolis and St. Paul unions have stood together throughout the negotiations process, holding rallies and joint press conferences to highlight their shared approach to bargaining contracts that hold school officials accountable for meeting students’ needs, said Erica Schatzlein, an English learner teacher at Nokomis Montessori North and SPFE’s lead negotiator.

“What we have shown here (in St. Paul) is that educators and school leaders can come together to give our students the resources we need,” Schatzlein said during a press conference Monday night. “And we need [Minneapolis Superintendent] Ed Graff and the Minneapolis school district to do the same for children and families across the river.”

SPFE’s tentative agreement delivers on many of SPFE’s student-centered bargaining priorities, most notably keeping and improving hard-fought language around class-size limits and mental-health services for students. It also includes compensation to retain and reward the union’s roughly 3,500 members during a historically challenging time for school employees.

But administrators refused to discuss most of the union’s demands until just days before the March 8 strike date, SPFE leaders said.

“The district had some parameters that they said they had to stay within for what they could offer for wages and benefits, and they moved off those,” SPFE President Leah VanDassor said during a press conference after signing the tentative agreement.

Schatzlein added: “In these last days and hours, I feel like we’ve turned a corner in collaboration with the district, and we hope to see that continue.”

Indeed, SPFE members have now voted to authorize a strike in three consecutive rounds of contract negotiations, and they went on strike for three days in March 2020. The current round of talks dragged on for nearly eight months, and the two sides bargained for over 50 hours in the final days before the strike deadline.

SPFE President Leah VanDassor urged on striking Minneapolis educators during a Capitol rally. “This is not just a Saint Paul, not just a Minneapolis issue,” she said. “This is an issue for public education, and we are all in this together.”

“This agreement could have been reached much earlier,” VanDassor said. “It shouldn’t have taken a strike vote, but we got there.”

Union leaders said they hoped to share details of the agreement with educators, who will take a ratification vote in the coming weeks, before making them public. The school board must also sign off on the contracts next month.

A highlight of the settlement, Schatzlein said, was compensation increases for educational assistants, who are among the district’s lowest-paid employees.

“We have made important ground in getting our lowest-paid educators, our educational assistants, many of whom are black and brown women, who look like our students, who are close to our families, the compensation that they deserve,” she said.

The tentative agreement also includes a one-time recognition payment to all educators, tapping into federal funds authorized by the American Recovery Plan.

Educators also succeeded in protecting contract language around restorative practices as an approach to discipline in schools, “so that we learn to transform our school culture and welcome our students in instead of pushing them out,” Schatzlein said.

“This has been an amazing, difficult, taxing last few days, but we have gotten what we need for our students,” VanDassor said. “As we move forward with these new things we have in our contract, we are going to continue to build and work together to make this the best school district in Minnesota.”

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