St. Paul Teachers Prepare for Potential Strike

Updated: 02/12/2014 7:51 AM By: Steve Patterson

KSTP File Photo
KSTP File Photo

Photo: Photo: KSTP file

We're learning more about what a potential teacher strike in St. Paul could look like -- and what brought the two sides to the brink.

If the St. Paul Federation of Teachers votes to strike on Feb. 24, and the union's executive board then votes to authorize a strike, the school district says all schools would be closed, all before and after school activities would be canceled -- including sports -- and 2,500 workers who aren't teacher would be furloughed. The school year could also be extended, and graduation could be delayed.

"Strike is a very real, solemn possibility," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the union.

But Ricker said about 3,200 teachers would be striking for the right reasons.

"We absolutely are excited about these priorities -- we know that they're the right ones," Ricker said.

The teachers' union wants smaller class sizes, less standardized testing, more student access to Pre-K education, and the hiring of more in-school staff like librarians, nurses, and counselors.

"The strike is the last thing I want for my own children. It's the last thing I want for anyone's child. And at the same time, I want to give parents dependable class sizes," Ricker said.

St. Paul superintendent Valeria Silva said she supports those goals, but they don't belong in a teacher contract -- and they would cost $150 million over two years.

"We can not negotiate a contract that we can not afford," Silva said.

Silva said the impasse extends to wages and benefits. The district is offering a 6.5 percent raise over two years, at a cost of $26 million. The union wants an 11.4 percent increase, with a $60 million price tag.

The gap is wide.

"If a strike happens, we will be hurting our students, we will be hurting our families, and not only that, we will be stopping the learning for all the 39,000 students that we have," Silva said.

That's why both sides say they're committed to preventing a strike.

"If it takes us to be working weekends, until midnight, we're here to get this resolved," Silva said.

"We're going to get through this. We're going to settle a contract," Ricker said.

Class size has become the teachers' rallying cry -- they want to cap all classrooms at 22 students. A report released last year showed St. Paul schools currently average about 25 students, and that's actually below the average in the metro, which is 27 students.

Silva said not only would the district need more teachers to cap class sizes, but they don't have enough classrooms either.

There is one negotiating session scheduled before the teachers vote, but the district said it's asking the mediator to schedule more of them.

If the teachers win their fight against the district, they may have the "Windy City" to thank. David Larson, a professor of law at Hamline University thinks that lessons learned from the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, widely considered a win for the teachers, will be put into practice in St. Paul.

“They learned what brought public support, what resonates with the population, and I think they’re going to frame the issues similarly,” said Larson.

That framing includes focusing on the kids and smaller class sizes, not on wage increases and changes to benefits. It’s a strategy that the St. Paul Teachers Federation is hoping works again. Ricker added that it’s important that students are at the center of a 21st century contract. 

But no matter the presentation, David Larson thinks it will likely boil down to one thing, saying, “Well, you know, unfortunately it often comes down to money, and I think that that’s what we’re going to be struggling with here.”