Tracy Gordon, an associate educator at Barton Elementary School, chants on a megaphone as strikers march to the Davis Education Center in north Minneapolis on March 8, the first day of the strike. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Minneapolis Public Schools and the district’s striking educators are scheduled to resume mediation Thursday. The district’s 30,000 students haven’t attended school for 13 days as the two sides clash over union contract talks that hinge on salary increases and mental health support for students, among other issues.

Union leaders said Thursday they were closing in on a deal, and expressed optimism about returning to the classroom soon. The mediation was seen as a sign of progress since the two sides did not meet throughout the day yesterday.

“We’re feeling very good about today, and our folks should feel very hopeful about being back really soon,” said Shaun Laden, the educational support professionals chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals.

Teachers also struck an optimistic note Thursday. Teachers and educational support professionals belong to the same union and are both on strike. But they are negotiating separate contracts.

“We are feeling like today could be the day,” said Greta Callahan, the teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals. “After moving the mental health proposal to a memorandum of agreement, we are not having a lot of sticking points.”

The optimism from union leaders came a day after negotiations stalled out entirely. Callahan accused district negotiators of walking out Tuesday night. On Wednesday, she said, they never showed up.

Minneapolis Public Schools on Wednesday confirmed it had not met with striking teachers that day.

“While we remain committed to reaching an agreement as soon as possible, the mediators set and schedule the negotiation sessions,” the district said in a statement to Sahan Journal early Wednesday afternoon. “We have not yet received word of what today’s schedule is.”

But later that afternoon, the district had a different explanation. “MPS remains committed to meet anytime, any day, for as long as we need to meet, when MFT [the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers] is working within the financial parameters set forth by our last, best and final offers,” it said in a follow-up statement issued a few hours later.

Last, best, and final offers?

On Tuesday night, the district made what it described as its “last, best, and final offer” to teachers. The district also said that the teachers’ proposals were $167 million over budget. The district has a $650 million operating budget.

The biggest chunk of that $167 million? Teachers’ requests for student mental health support. They wanted caps on caseloads—that is, the maximum number of students each professional serves—for school counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and special education teachers.

Teachers also wanted each school to employ at least one full-time social worker, one full-time counselor, and one full-time nurse. The district’s offer provided for one full-time social worker at each school, though not a counselor or a nurse, and lower caseload ratios at higher-need schools.

Since Tuesday, the union lowered its requests, moving the mental health items into a two-year memorandum of agreement rather than contract language. Because it is a temporary agreement, union leaders noted, it would be easier to pay for with one-time federal funding. The union also lowered its caseload proposals, asking for half-time service providers instead of full-time.

Salary remains a key issue in Thursday’s talks, Callahan said. The union now wants a 3 percent salary increase in each of the contract’s two years. Minneapolis teachers have not received more than a 2 percent raise in any of the last 20 years, sometimes receiving no cost-of-living increase at all. The average Minneapolis teacher earns $14,000 less than the average St. Paul teacher, and salary increases have lagged neighboring districts.

The district’s proposal would increase salaries by 2.25 percent across the board each year in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023. Teachers in their first through sixth years on the job would receive larger increases of 5 to 12.5 percent. The proposal would also establish a minimum salary of $50,000.

Callahan on Wednesday described that proposal as “churn and burn”—that is, designed to attract new teachers, but not to retain them long-term. She also pointed out that it excludes teachers in the district’s adult basic education program.

If a deal is reached Thursday, it’s not clear when students will return to school.

“There is no set plan on how/when to get back to school,” a Minneapolis Public Schools spokesperson told Sahan Journal Wednesday. “Our main focus right now is reaching an agreement and we will announce plans to get students back to school after that.”

Those plans, like the contract, would have to be negotiated with the union.

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