Teachers in the Minneapolis School District walked off the job on Tuesday in a dispute over wages, class sizes and mental health support for students coping with two years of the coronavirus pandemic, at least temporarily pausing classes for about 29,000 students and nearly 3,300 teachers in one of Minnesota’s largest school districts.
Union leaders said they could not get district officials to compromise on wages, especially a “living wage” for education support professionals, as well as caps on class sizes and more mental health services for students.
“We are on strike for safe and stable schools, we’re on strike for systemic change, we’re on strike for our students, the future of our city and the future of Minneapolis public schools,” Greta Cunningham, president of the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday outside a south Minneapolis elementary school where more than 100 union members and supporters picketed in freezing weather.
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The Minneapolis union leaders were joined by the heads of the two major national teachers unions, who came to show their solidarity on behalf of teachers across the country.
“If we do not provide what our students need and deserve, it will impact all over this country,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said students and parents in the 16,000 school districts across the county have experienced “unprecedented” hardships during the pandemic. She said they’ve relied on school nurses, support staff and educators “to have created as normal a situation as possible.” But she said class sizes are “way too high” in Minneapolis, with “way too few” guidance counselors and nurses, and that wages for education support professionals are too low to support families.
“How do you attract Black and brown teachers if you don’t pay a living wage?” Weingarten said.
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The school district called the news disappointing but pledged to keep negotiating. Callahan said the union was also willing to resume bargaining, but no talks were scheduled.
In the neighboring St. Paul Public Schools district, with about 34,000 students, classes continued without interruption after teachers and administrators announced a tentative agreement late Monday night to avert a strike that had also been scheduled to start Tuesday.
Union officials in both cities said the issues were largely the same. The St. Paul teachers union said their tentative agreement — subject to approval by members — includes maintaining caps on class sizes, increased mental health supports and pay increases.
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“This agreement could have been reached much earlier. It shouldn’t have taken a strike vote, but we got there,” local union President Leah VanDassor said in an announcement of the deal.
St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said the agreements were fair while working within the district’s budget limitations.
State mediators facilitated the negotiations between administrators and union leaders in both districts.
The national teachers union leaders say teachers and support staff across the country are experiencing the same sorts of overload and burnout challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, no other large districts were on the verge of a strike. Minneapolis school officials say they’re already facing budget shortfalls due to enrollment losses stemming from the pandemic and can’t spend money they don’t have.
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The Minneapolis district advised parents to arrange child care on their own. They said the district was able to offer emergency child supervision for preschool through 5th graders only “on an extremely limited basis” starting Wednesday. Bagged breakfasts and lunches can be picked up at schools starting Wednesday. The city’s park system extended the hours at its recreation centers to give students places to go and activities to keep them busy.
The possibility of a strike earlier weighed on parents already stretched by the disruption of the pandemic.
Erin Zielinski’s daughter, Sybil, is a first-grader at Armatage Community School in southwest Minneapolis. She and her husband support the teachers, though she said she worries whether the union’s requests are sustainable.
Zielinski said her family is fortunate. She and her husband can count on support from their parents during a strike, and while he has had to return to the office, she still has some flexibility to work remotely. Her plan if teachers strike? “Survival,” she said and laughed.
“You kind of become immune to it, between distance learning, and home school, it’s now a way of life, unfortunately,” she said. “My husband and I will piece it together.”
Minneapolis has about 3,265 teachers, while St. Paul has roughly 3,250 educators. The average annual salary for St. Paul teachers is more than $85,000, while it’s more than $71,000 in Minneapolis. However, the districts also employ hundreds of lower-paid support staffers who often say they don’t earn a living wage, and those workers have been a major focus of the talks. The Minneapolis union is seeking a starting salary of $35,000 for education support professionals, compared with the current $24,000, with union officials saying it’s essential to hire and retain people of color.