Educators picket outside Green Central Elementary School on March 8, the first day of the Minneapolis educator strike. Two weeks later, much of the snow has melted, but a deal to end the strike remains elusive. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Updated Tuesday, March 22, 11:20 a.m.

Negotiations between striking Minneapolis educators and the school district made significant progress over the weekend, but did not result in a deal. Educators picketed outside schools and district headquarters Monday, preparing for a third week of negotiations, closed schools, and missed paychecks.

“We are close, but we are not where we need to be,” said Shaun Laden, the union’s educational support professional chapter president, at a Monday morning press conference outside the Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters. Educational support professionals play a variety of roles in schools, providing support for special education students, behavior intervention, and family communication. 

On Sunday afternoon, Minneapolis Public Schools made what it described as the district’s “last, best, and final offer” to the educational support professional chapter of the union. The district said its offer would pay 85 percent of ESPs $23 per hour or more, which would bring most full-time support staff close to a minimum salary of $35,000 per year.* (Many educational support staff receive part-time hours from the district.) The offer also includes $6,000 one-time bonuses to educational support professionals.

“We believe this contract both meets what they’ve asked for and demonstrates a measure of the respect they deserve,” said Minneapolis school board chair Kim Ellison in a video released Sunday. Ellison added that the district believed this offer represented the fastest way to get students back to school.

Minneapolis Public Schools said that this offer goes beyond the district’s budget capacity, and that as a result the district will need to make $10 million in cuts for next school year.

In her video, Ellison asked the union to accept the offer or join the district in arbitration. The union rejected both requests.

“We appreciate the move from the district,” Laden said at Monday’s press conference. “We’re much closer to where we need to be to get this done. But there are still some outstanding issues.”

So, just how close are we to a settlement?

“The devil’s in the details as always,” Laden said. “We now have something that we think we can work with. We’re definitely going to continue to talk about some of those details.”

Some of those details include:

  • Seniority rights. Unlike teachers, associate educators—educational support assistants who help teachers in classrooms—have no job protection rights, Laden said, and extending these protections would not cost the district money.
  • Automatic step raises. While Minneapolis teachers automatically receive annual raises based on years of service, educational support professionals do not. (Neither do food service workers: This was a major point of contention in their own recently settled contract.) Instead, these raises must be negotiated every two years, when the district and ESPs negotiate a new contract. “This is a good example of something that’s going to be a sticking point here at the end,” Laden said. “We’re very close, but we’ve got to get that figured out.”
  • Bonuses. The union’s counterproposal includes $10,000 bonuses to educational support professionals, rather than the $6,000 the district offered, as well as additional bonus payments for ESPs with five or more years of service.

One strike, two contracts

But the district and the union are negotiating two contracts, one for teachers and one for ESPs. Higher wages for educational support professionals have been a top priority for both chapters. 

The union’s other priorities—lower mental-health and special-education caseloads, class-size caps, higher teacher salaries, and retention for educators of color—are being negotiated primarily in the teacher contract. 

The two bargaining units do not anticipate settling separately, Laden said, pointing to progress with the teacher contract.

Minneapolis Public Schools did not release new details about negotiations with teachers over the weekend, but the union released its own proposals as well as the district’s counterproposals. In a Monday afternoon update to its website, the union identified the key sticking points for teachers:

  • Pay. The district has proposed a 2 percent salary increase for most teachers in each of the contract’s two years, with up to a 12 percent raise for newer teachers, whose salaries are lower. Teachers, whose salaries have not kept pace with those of teachers in neighboring districts, are now asking for a 5 percent pay raise in the contract’s first year and 4 percent the following year for all teachers. “We continue to lose educators to surrounding districts that now pay more,” the union wrote. “We need competitive pay.”
  • Caseloads. The district had previously pointed to progress in negotiations around caseloads: the number of students each special-education teacher or mental-health professional works with. But the union says the current proposal “does not allow for the supports our students need and does not meet us in the middle.”
  • Class-size caps. The district has now put these in writing, the union noted, but related language remains “problematic” to the union.
  • Adult educator pay. Licensed teachers in Minneapolis’ adult basic education programs teach English literacy and prepare students for GED exams. But the union says these teachers are “among the lowest paid licensed educators in the state,” and wants to add them to the same salary scale as the district’s other teachers.

The district’s proposal, the union said, was not sufficient.

“What they have sent over is not making the movement our members need to end this strike,” the union concluded.

In an update posted to its website Monday night, Minneapolis Public Schools reiterated that it had made its final offer to educational support professionals. The district added that it had responded to all of the teachers’ proposals, but that the union’s current requests for teachers exceed the district’s financial means by more than $100 million.

On Tuesday morning, the district sounded somewhat more optimistic. “Discussions yesterday moved us closer to agreement,” the district wrote, describing talks that lasted past 1 a.m.

Students and staff still do not know when they will return to school. On Tuesday, Minneapolis schools were closed for the 11th day of the strike. Talks between the district and union continue. Despite the weekend progress, no deal appears imminent.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

*Clarification: a previous version of this story said the district’s offer would bring most full-time ESPs to a minimum salary of $35,000. The district has said their offer would bring these support staff close to $35,000.

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