Staff in the St. Paul Public Schools are on the brink of a strike again after members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators voted yesterday to authorize the union’s elected leaders to call a work stoppage.

Union members who voted “yes” said they were hopeful the vote would be a catalyst for movement in negotiations with the district, which began last May and have since entered mediation.

According to members of the SPFE bargaining team, the district has shown little interest in the union’s student-centered contract proposals, which include lowering class sizes, fully staffing mental health services, support for students with special needs and measures to attract and retain educators during the pandemic.

“I want our district to stop saying that they value their educators and actually do it,” said René Myers, an intervention specialist at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy who voted “yes” to authorizing a strike. “I want our district to value our knowledge and expertise, and actually support us in our efforts instead of dismissing us and saying they know better.”

About two-thirds of SPFE’s 3,680 members participated in the vote, with 78% voting in favor of strike authorization.

Educators across the river voted to authorize a strike this week, too. Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals announced their strike vote results yesterday, and said they are seeking living wages for ESPs and improved learning and working conditions in the district.

School districts and their unions negotiate every two years, and strike votes have become more common in recent years, since the state eliminated a penalty for districts that fail to finalize employee agreements by a certain deadline, SPFE member Peter Grebner said.

“The district has no incentive to take us seriously until our members show they are willing to support their bargaining team and help fight for our demands,” he said. “Although strike votes are stressful, they now appear to be necessary if we are to continue to win some of our proposals and prevent them from removing things we have won previously.”

But Grebner, a longtime member of the union’s bargaining team, said the district’s stance is more hardline this year than he has ever seen.

Not only are SPPS negotiators effectively stonewalling most of SPFE’s 23 proposals, the district is seeking to claw back hard-won language in the educators’ contracts around mental health supports, class sizes and even guaranteed recess for elementary students.

“Trying to take advantage of the pandemic to take away these things is not only harmful, but disrespectful to families and employees,” Grebner said.

While SPFE negotiators are hoping for progress when talks with the district resume, the strike vote is no empty threat.

Most of SPFE’s members, who include teachers, educational assistants and professional staff in the district, have experience on the picket line after a weeklong strike in March 2020. At the time, union leaders said the strike would likely have continued were it not for uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Myers, who also serves on the bargaining team, said the district seems to be taking the same approach it did two years ago, marked by a stubborn “unwillingness … to actively participate in the process.”

“I am voting for a strike so that our kids can get what they need: a real, well-rounded education where they see educators that look like them, who can support their mental health as well as their academic needs, who will be there for them every step of the way because they are provided with the tools they need,” Myers added.

SPFE must deliver 10 days’ notice to the district before the union can legally go on strike. Union leaders indicated they plan to deliver that notice next week.

“No one wants to strike, but district leaders haven’t budged and even want to backtrack on the investments our students need,” SPFE President Leah VanDassor said. “The last two years have been hard on everyone. It has also shown us students need even more support, not less.

“The short-term sacrifice of a strike is worth it so our students have the schools they deserve for years to come.”

Educators urged community members to call on administrators to quit stalling and begin taking the negotiations seriously, and to sign the petition in support of their student-centered contract demands.

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