St. Paul teachers, school district reach deal ending strike

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Demonstrators gather at the Global Arts Plus Upper Campus in St. Paul before marching to district headquarters Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The St. Paul teachers union and Minnesota’s second-largest school district reached a tentative contract agreement early Friday, ending a strike that began Tuesday and canceled classes for some 36,000 students.

The union, which represents about 3,600 teachers and support staff, said it was in the best interest of all involved to settle the contract, given the uncertainty of possible school closures due to the coronavirus.

“Only an unprecedented pandemic and concern over the health and safety of our students and staff stopped St. Paul educators from fighting harder and longer for more resources for our children,” said St. Paul Federation of Educators President Nick Faber. “Still, this strike demonstrated the power educators have when they use their collective voice.”

Students will return to class Monday. A vote by union members has not been scheduled on the tentative agreement, which was reached about 3:30 a.m. Friday after more than 19 hours of mediation that began early Thursday.

“Through hours of compromise and a laser focus on placing students above all else, we have a new two-year agreement that targets resources to areas of greatest need,” said Superintendent Joe Gothard.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators said the agreement includes more social workers, nurses, intervention specialists, psychologists and multilingual staff, although it was not specific on the number of additional staff.

The union was striking over demands for additional mental health, multilingual and special education support staff. Gothard had said the $50 million in demands were cost prohibitive.

The union’s mental health proposal called for mental health teams in every building. Gothard had said St. Paul already has 500 positions dedicated to student health and emotional well-being, and the union’s proposal would require an additional 300 hires at a cost of $30 million a year.

The walkout was the first for the district since 1946. Negotiations between the union and district began last May. The school district is one of the city’s largest employers with about 6,700 staff members and 63 schools.

The concerns St. Paul teachers raised are reflected in schools across the state and country, especially in high-poverty school districts where shortages of support staff leave educators feeling stretched.

After an 11-day strike last fall, the Chicago Teachers Union reached a contract that guaranteed nurses and social workers would be assigned to every school. Chicago Public Schools committed to hiring an additional 250 nurses and 209 more social workers by 2023 and put $500,000 toward recruiting and training people for those jobs and other roles.

Unions and professional groups for such employees say those jobs often are lower priorities when budgets are tight, but that their absence can have profound effects on student learning and teachers’ work.

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