Thousands of striking Minneapolis educators marched to district headquarters at the Davis Center on March 8, the first day of the strike. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Striking Minneapolis educators want to see permanent changes in their contract, not concessions that will expire in two years, union presidents Greta Callahan and Shaun Laden said Monday morning.

Minneapolis educators are now in the fifth day of a strike that has shuttered schools for some 30,000 students. Educators are calling for class-size limits, more mental health support for students, and a boost in pay, particularly for educational support professionals.

For the first time since the strike began, union leaders pointed to some progress in negotiation. Over the weekend, Minneapolis Public Schools offered contract language on class-size caps, which Laden described as “encouraging.” The district also offered to restructure the pay scale for educational support professionals, which has long been a union priority. 

Union leaders were pleased to see the district make these concessions. “We’re seeing them do things they said they never do, that they don’t want to do, that they are doing,” said Laden, the educational support professional chapter president. “That’s important.”

But many of the district’s other offerings, like increased hours (and bigger paychecks) for educational support professionals, take the form of temporary agreements, he said. Instead of contract language, these proposals take the form of a “memorandum of agreement.” These agreements expire and are harder to enforce.

For example, the union wants the district to make more hours available to educational support professionals, who work part-time. The district has proposed adding 30 minutes a day to these professionals’ schedules, Laden said. But the district’s proposal currently takes the form of a two-year memorandum of agreement.

 “If we can get that proposal in contract language, all of a sudden, we’re having a totally different conversation,” he said.

The school district, which is facing a $21.5 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, received $261 million in one-time federal COVID relief funding. That money must be spent by September 2024. District leaders have said they cannot use those funds for salary increases or other expenses that will continue past 2024.

However, Minneapolis school board chair Kim Ellison said in an interview Thursday that the district could allocate some of its federal COVID funds for temporary agreements. That way, the district would not be committing to ongoing spending past the federal funds’ expiration date.

She suggested class-size caps as an example. During a two-year agreement, she said, the district would have time to study the impact of class-size limits. At the end of that time, the district could determine whether these limits had been effective, and if so, find funding to prioritize these caps going forward. (In the days after Ellison spoke to Sahan Journal, the district agreed to move class-size caps for some schools into contract language.)

School board warns new spending could lead to potential budget shortfalls and ‘drastic cuts’

At a press conference Sunday evening, Kimberly Caprini, the school board treasurer, said that the district’s current proposal would significantly increase spending, despite the budget shortfall.

“We are doing this in recognition of the extraordinary work of our staff over the past two years, despite the financial risk,” Caprini said. She warned, though, that if the union accepted this offer, the district would “have to make other drastic cuts—unless the state provides additional funding in the next two years.” (Ed Graff, the superintendent, has said the district’s budget shortfall could mean conversations about layoffs or school closures in the near future.)

District leaders negotiate the contract within parameters set by the school board. School board members, particularly Ellison, have taken a more active role at the negotiating table over the past week. The board will ultimately approve the final contract and budget.

Caprini described the offer as the district’s “financial limit.”

“In our assessment, any further permanent spending would not be a responsible move for the board,” she said.

Laden and Callahan, though, say the district can reallocate funds in other ways without adding to the deficit. For example, one of the educators’ top priorities is more counselors and social workers in schools. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the district has contracted with outside groups to provide students with mental health support. Instead, the district could invest that money in school counselors who are in school buildings every day, Callahan said.

“You can’t have strangers coming into the building for a few hours a week,” Callahan said. “They need to have relationships with those people to actually be supported in the way that they deserve.”

District leaders need to be having hard conversations with the board about how to dig into the budget, Laden said.

“We haven’t heard them once say how they’re going to get creative or what they’re going to do differently,” Callahan said, before heading into Monday’s mediation session. “They just continue to say we can’t, we can’t, we can’t.”

Negotiations will continue, and students will continue to stay home, until the two sides find a way to reach an agreement.

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