Kim Ellison poses for a photo at her home on October 19, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal file

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Update: Thursday, March 10, 6:36 p.m.

Kim Ellison, the Minneapolis school board chair, said in an interview that the district’s limited resources must be targeted to the students who need them most.

“Our values are not different,” she said of the educators union, in its third day of a strike, and the district. “The board is trying to figure out how to stay within the financial parameters that we have.”

Pay for educational support professionals has emerged as a top priority for the union. Some of these educators, about half of whom are people of color, earn as little as $24,000 per year. The union has called for a minimum increase in their salary to $35,000 annually.

“We want to increase pay for our ESPs, our food service workers, childcare assistants, and our lowest-paid teachers,” Ellison said.

Teacher pay has become a sticking point as well. Minneapolis teachers contend that their salaries have failed to keep up with peer districts over the past 20 years. State data show that the average Minneapolis teacher earns about $14,000 less than an average teacher in St. Paul. 

Patricia Saenz-Armstrong, a senior economist with the National Council on Teacher Quality, told Sahan Journal that starting pay for Minneapolis teachers is comparable to other big Minnesota districts. But those salaries grow at a lower rate. And over the past three years, Minneapolis teacher salary increases have barely kept up with inflation.

Minneapolis teachers have stressed they want “competitive pay,” and are currently asking for a 12 percent salary increase next year.

Ellison prefers to take a more targeted approach, raising pay for entry-level teachers to a minimum of $50,000.

“Maybe not everybody gets a 12 percent increase, but our lowest paid do,” she said. “And the board is really committed to seeing that happen.”

Class size is another sticking point. The union has called for class-size limits to be enshrined in the contract.

“The district does not disagree,” Ellison said. “But do we have a class-size cap across the district, or just where students have been most impacted by the pandemic? Students who have been most impacted by the killings, by both police and by community?” The board would prefer to focus on providing individualized attention to students who need it more, she said.

Ellison said she has been in contact with St. Paul school board members to learn more about their recent tentative agreement with teachers, as well as the class-size caps in their contract. St. Paul educators, fighting for many of the same issues as their counterparts in Minneapolis, nearly held a parallel strike before reaching an eleventh-hour agreement Monday night. 

The Minneapolis union has held St. Paul’s agreement up as proof that a contract that meets their priorities is possible.

“We know that if they can do it in St. Paul, we can do it here,” said Greta Callahan, teacher chapter president of the union, in a video released Thursday morning.

Ellison also expressed hope that the parameters outlined in St. Paul could pave the way for a solution in Minneapolis. The tentative agreement has not been made public yet, but it could shed light on language and numbers that the St. Paul union agreed to, she said.

Ellison has also been working to increase the available funds by talking to state legislators about the state’s $9 billion surplus. She said she has spoken with lawmakers about increasing education funding statewide as well as one-time payments that could help settle the strike. Other district representatives have been in contact with the governor’s office. 

“Education funding has not kept up with inflation for the last decade,” she said. “So that’s one of the reasons we’re at this point. If it had, or if they had even just fulfilled their promises around special education funding, English language learner funding, we would not be looking at a structural deficit every year.”

She was encouraged to see a tweet from the governor last night in support of increasing education funding.

But passing his education budget will require support from the divided state legislature. Bills to reduce or eliminate cross-subsidies—that is, to increase funding for special education and English language services—have garnered support from many Democrats, who hold the majority in the House. 

Republicans hold the majority in the Senate. So far, they have said they prefer to spend the surplus on tax cuts.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.