In 2017, both the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) and St. Paul Public School (SPPS) district teacher contracts have expired. The termination of this contract sent the teachers of both districts into negotiation with their district for the next contract’s terms.
This year, negotiations between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), as well as the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), and their districts have been a bit more complicated, with disagreements of the proposed changes on the district’s end: “The contractual changes that we’re asking for are not outrageous; they are best practices for teaching and learning for kids and staff,” said South English teacher Michelle Ockman.
In St. Paul, agreements between the union and district were a slow moving process until recently, when the teachers organized a strike. “It wasn’t until we authorized a strike, that we called a strike vote, that we started to get movement on some of those smaller things,” said Faber. “That’s really frustrating. We would have rather been spending the time this week, the members on our bargaining team would rather have been with their students, rather than sitting and mediating.”
The strike was called off on February 12th at 2am, just a day before it was to take place, when the district and union came to a tentative agreement.
For this contract, the MFT has a ten point plan of the requirements they feel would be in all schools best interests to get passed. “The ten point plan and what our union stewards are fighting for is important because we need to do what is best for students. What is best for students is what is on that plan,” said Ockman.
According to the MFT and Education Support Personnel website, the list of demands from MPS teachers consists of smaller class sizes, reducing standardized testing, restorative practices for discipline, cleaner learning environments, $15 for all MPS employees, mandatory recess, and a more equitable education.
However, many points of the MFT plan are contradicted by the proposed plans of the district, some of which including cutting rather than increasing teacher pay, removing the number cap on class sizes, and bringing school down to a six period day.
“They are considering cutting teacher pay, which is absolutely ridiculous. I think if they went that far they would have a lot of very angry people,” said Ockman. The effect of a pay decrease could potentially impact the teachers’ lives, especially those in their earlier years on the job.
Many teachers believe that the district plans for schools do not have the wellbeing of the schools in mind. “The only thing the district is focused on right now is saving every penny it can. It’s focused on where it can cut and not what it can do better,” said social studies teacher Robert Panning-Miller.
Union members have worked to find areas where saving is possible through alternative methods. “Minneapolis is a very large district and it is also very top heavy, which means that there is a district presence that is perhaps not necessary,” said Ockman. “A lot of these administrators and positions that they have to me, are redundant. They have teachers, who are professional, who don’t necessarily need say a ‘focused instruction’ department.”
“We are professional as teachers and need to be trusted to do our jobs without being told the curriculum that we need to teacg. In order to respect that, you could get rid of a lot of those top heavy positions at the district and then save a lot of money that way,” Ockman explained.
One point teachers are focused on is reducing the amount of standardized testing. Union members are advocating for a more learning based academic setting, rather than one in which students are pushed to do well on a test: “The union is trying to support students and learning and not this ‘let’s just get the kids through the system’ mindset,” said Ockman. “This whole chaotic buzz about ‘my kid has got to be in all [Advanced Placement], and they’ve got to have the best test scores’ is really hurting learning.”
The district’s proposal of a six period day is a controversial one: Currently, South has seven class periods. “Students who were not as successful in school and are in need of extra support, and students who have that zero hour, [or] they want to take language every year and so on, a seven period day is better for those extremes…They have more time in the day to get those things done during the school day,” said Ockman. “Kids who struggle more to get through the system, they can have more opportunities to take electives if they need support classes.”
However, Ockman also recognized that, “the six period day is nice because it doesn’t feel so fast and busy. It’s longer class time.”
In St. Paul, the SPTF also had essential points they were working towards passing. Some of these points include better accommodation for English Language Learners, more adequate support for Special Ed students, smaller class sizes, and using restorative justice over traditional disciplinary punishment.
SPFT President Nick Faber explained the importance of continuing St. Paul restorative justice practices: “It’s really important to us that we get more funding for our restorative practices program… This is truly transformational anti-racist work that can slow or end the school-to-prison pipeline and build the types of communities in our schools that our kids deserve.”
“When we know that we have the types of racial disparities between our students of color and their white counterparts in our schools around discipline and suspension rates we need to have this transformational work built up in our district and we can’t slow that down right now,” said Faber. “We have so much interest in it. And the only thing that is holding it back is our district has not decided to increase funding for that.”
As conversation continues and teachers begin to get frustrated towards the lack of district compliance with their plan, questions will most likely begin to arise as to what the next step will be. For the teachers of St. Paul, it took calling a strike to be heard, and some MPS teachers are beginning to think a strike could be right for them as well.