Angelica Cadena, a student pursuing her GED, marches in the picket line outside the MPS Center for Adult Learning on Thursday, March 10. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The Minneapolis educator strike stretched into its fourth day Friday. Educators rallied the first three days of the strike but canvassed neighborhoods Friday. The district outlined how the strike would impact the schools calendar as negotiations continued, with both sides more than $100 million apart in their proposals.

The strike of 4,000 educators in the Minneapolis Public Schools marks the first time in more than 50 years that Minneapolis teachers have walked off the job. Educators are negotiating for wage gains—particularly for educational support professionals—additional counselors and social workers, and limits on class size. 

Minneapolis educators are negotiating for wage gains—particularly for educational support professionals—additional counselors and social workers, and class-size limits.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, an educational support professional at Roosevelt High School, pointed to a pay gap between educational support professionals, half of whom are people of color, and teachers, most of whom are white. “Our top priority is a livable wage for ESPs,” Roberson-Moody said Monday night, “because we make school happen every single day.”

Cars honked in a steady street of support as they passed striking educators on 35th Street outside Green Central Elementary School. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

In St. Paul, the educators union called off a prospective parallel strike after reaching a tentative agreement with the district Monday night. Educators in the two cities belong to separate unions and negotiate with different leadership, but until Monday night they remained on similar collision courses with their districts. 

Minneapolis Public Schools released a statement shortly after the union’s strike announcement Monday night. “While it is disappointing to hear this news, we know our organizations’ mutual priorities are based on our deep commitment to the education of Minneapolis students,” the district said. “MPS will remain at the mediation table non-stop in an effort to reduce the length and impact of this strike.”

Classes for the district’s 29,000 students will be canceled for the duration of a strike. School-based clinics and mental health services will continue.

Beginning Wednesday, school breakfast and lunch will be available for parent pickup, and emergency childcare will be available at some schools on an extremely limited basis. You can find more information about these services here. The district has enrichment activities online to keep students engaged during the strike. Additional childcare resources compiled by the district can be found here.

Catch up on all the latest strike updates here.

Educators, students, and families streamed onto the Capitol lawn from every direction. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Update: Friday, March 11, 12:23 p.m.

In an update to its negotiations webpage, Minneapolis Public Schools described having “collaborative discussions” with ESPs Thursday. The district also outlined how a strike would affect the school calendar, which varies by school.

State law requires a minimum of 165 school days for students in first through 11th grades. Minneapolis elementary schools have 170 instructional days on their school calendars, meaning no school time will need to be made up if the strike lasts five days or fewer. (This update came on the fourth day of the strike, with the two sides still more than $100,000,000 apart from an agreement.)

Most seventh and eighth grade schools and some high schools have no extra time built into the calendar, the district said. In those schools, all school days canceled as a result of the strike will have to be made up later.

School days may be made up over spring break, in June, or by eliminating professional development days.

Update: Friday, March 11, 11:25 a.m.

Adult basic education teachers and their students picketed outside the MPS Center for Adult Learning on Thursday evening. Supportive honks from cars passing on Lake Street blared in a continuous din.

Nate Hart-Andersen and Alma Mendez, who teach adult learners, said they were on strike for a higher wage for educational support professionals and teachers. Adult basic education teachers earn as much as 30 percent less than K–12 teachers, Hart-Andersen said.

“Our program right now is in a crisis because we are seeing a massive exodus of our best and most qualified teachers,” he said. “That means members of the community who want to take our classes can’t take them because they aren’t available.” Those prospective students are adults studying English, learning computer skills, and pursuing their high school equivalency, he said.

“We provide a vital service to the community,” Mendez said. “We’re providing GED services and English language services so our students can move up in their careers.”

Angelica Cadena, who is pursuing her GED through the program, spoke glowingly about her educators.

“The teachers are amazing,” she said. “As adults, it’s harder for us to learn. The majority of us, our first language is not English, so it’s even harder. And they are so patient with all of us.”

Cadena was a kindergarten teacher in Mexico before coming to the United States.

“I know how hard it is to educate,” she said. “The teachers deserve fair pay, fair benefits. And it’s not fair especially in this school that they are receiving 30 percent less than the teachers in other schools.”

Marvin Applewhite received his GED through the program. He has been involved in the neighborhood for years, and said the teachers had always supported his endeavors.

“They need better pay, man,” he said, noting that Minneapolis educators have not been on strike since 1970. “They’ve been putting up with this large gap in pay for a long time. It’s time to get what they want, man. Just give ’em a little boost.”

William Martinez, an immigrant from El Salvador, came to the picket to support his former teachers. He said the program taught him how to survive in the United States, and described the English classes offered as invaluable.

“I know for a lot of immigrants, not only for Latinos, the doors that this class opened to us,” he said.

William Martinez, who works in construction, came to support his former teachers in the Adult Basic Education program. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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.

But 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.

Update: Wednesday, March 9, 9:16 p.m.

Minneapolis teachers receive starting salaries that are comparable to those of their teaching peers in St. Paul and Anoka–Hennepin. But they earn less over time, said Patricia Saenz-Armstrong, a senior economist with the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The Washington, D.C.–based research and policy group analyzes and compares teacher salary schedules across 147 of the nation’s largest school districts, including three in Minnesota. (These salaries are specific to licensed teachers, not educational support professionals.)

“What I have observed is that Minneapolis salaries grow at a lower rate,” Saenz-Armstrong said.

A Minneapolis teacher with just a bachelor’s degree, for example, will never cross the $75,000 salary threshold. With a master’s degree, that teacher will earn $75,000 in his or her 20th year.

In St. Paul or Anoka–Hennepin, the two largest districts in the state, it would take the same teacher eight or 12 years to earn a $75,000 salary.

“That tells you that on the same lane, teachers are advancing steps to higher salaries sooner in the neighboring districts than in Minneapolis,” she said.

Teacher pay in these districts is fixed based on the salary schedule determined in the union contract. The contract sets a salary schedule based on years of experience and education level.

Salary increases have emerged as a key demand in labor negotiations between the Minneapolis educators union and the school district. Teachers initially called for a 20 percent salary hike, though their demand currently stands at 12 percent. They’ve stressed that they are willing to be flexible, but want “competitive pay” with surrounding districts. (Educators have said they will not budge on a demand for a minimum $35,000 for educational support professionals. These support staff are not included in this data analysis.)

In her research, Saenz-Armstrong has also noticed that over the past three years, Minneapolis teachers’ salaries have increased less than corresponding wages in St. Paul and Anoka–Hennepin. (St. Paul teachers settled their last two-year contract after a three-day strike in 2020.)

Between the step increase—which allows teachers to advance to a higher pay grade each year—and the cost of living increase, Minneapolis teachers have received a 6.8 percent pay raise over three years. During that same time window, the cost of living in the Twin Cities area has increased by 6.5 percent—“so, barely keeping up with inflation,” Saenz-Armstrong explained. (Those figures don’t include the past year and the recent rapid rise in inflation.)

In that same three-year time period, St. Paul and Anoka–Hennepin teachers received a 10 to 11 percent pay increase—keeping their salary increase 4 or 5 percent above inflation.

That’s a lot of math, but the bottom line: Minneapolis teachers effectively received no raise at all over the past three years, while St. Paul and Anoka–Hennepin teachers did.

Update: Wednesday, March 9, 3:09 p.m.

Streams of educators, students, and parents converged Wednesday afternoon on the south Capitol lawn in St. Paul for a rally to fund education.

One of those educators was Khadra Mohamed, an educational support professional at Transition Plus, a south Minneapolis program that helps 18- to 21-year-old students with educational disabilities as they transition to adulthood.

Her duties range from helping students with schoolwork, to feeding them, changing them, and behavior support. “You name it,” Khadra said. Plus, as a bilingual educator, she’s often called on to help interpret for families who need to navigate the school support system. She’s been with the district for more than six years, and earns less than $25,000 a year, Khadra said.

“At the end of the day, my check is not enough to pay my rent and my bills,” she said.

Patrick Henry High School students gathered at the Capitol to support their teachers, with colorful signs and colorful language. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Some Democratic state legislators appeared at the outdoor event in a show of support, including Representative Jim Davnie, the chair of the House education finance committee, and Senators Omar Fateh, Erin Murphy, and Melisa López Franzen. None of the officials spoke, however, or discussed the potential for additional state spending. 

The crowd cheered on the union speakers, who appeared to be in high spirits despite the biting cold. Thousands of picket signs waved across the south lawn.

Organizers concluded the rally by leading the crowd in song, calling out the union letters “MFT” to the tune of “Purple Rain.” A strike band—complete with drums, trombones, and saxophones—played “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

https://sahanjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/B81A0411.mp4

Fifteen-year-old Desirae Burch and her teacher, Robert Lewis, came to the rally on a field trip. Their school, Menlo Park Academy, is a “contract alternative school” within Minneapolis Public Schools. The district contracts with some community agencies to provide educational programming to at-risk youth. The school serves about 75 students who need more personalized attention. 

The teachers at Menlo Park Academy, like Lewis, are not unionized, and classes remain in session. But Lewis said it was important for them to show support.

“The contract alternatives have the same problems but worse, because we have less funding and higher needs,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to manage. Some days, it’s just hanging out and we can’t really do classes because people feel so stressed.” 

Teachers expend a lot of time imparting basic skills, such as how students can learn to regulate their stress, he said.

Desirae had made signs by attaching computer paper to yardsticks borrowed from the classroom. Her signs displayed a photo of yesterday’s rally outside the Nutrition Service Center and the words, “Just like students and teachers said, if we don’t get it, shut it down!”

“This is my passion. I love to draw, I love to color,” Desirae said. “I’m just inspired because this is all my teachers….They need their money.”

Desirae Burch, 15, a student at Menlo Park Academy, and her teacher Robert Lewis came to the rally on a field trip. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Update: Wednesday, March 9, 2:51 p.m.

Negotiations to settle the Minneapolis teacher strike resumed this morning, but both the union and district report that the meeting was brief and unfruitful.

In an update posted to its website, Minneapolis Public Schools said it had expected mediation to last all day, and hoped to meet around the clock. But the Bureau of Mediation Services, the state agency mediating the talks, informed the district of a change of schedule. Mediation lasted for just 90 minutes this morning. 

Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday with educational support professionals. “The mediator has not notified us of any meetings currently scheduled with our teachers,” the district wrote on its negotiations webpage. On the webpage, it also provided side-by-side comparisons of district and union proposals.

In a rally at the Capitol, Greta Callahan, the teacher chapter president of the union, blamed the district for the impasse.

“We showed up at the table at 10:30 today, and they said we have nothing for you,” Callahan said, drawing boos from the crowd of teachers.  “They keep forgetting who’s in control now. And it’s not them anymore.”

Update: Wednesday, March 9, 10:20 a.m.

Mediation between Minneapolis educators and the district was scheduled to resume at 10:30 this morning, the first such meeting since talks broke off Monday evening, union leaders said.

The announcement came at a press conference across the street from north Minneapolis’ Lucy Craft Laney School.

“We are in a fight for the soul of our city,” said Greta Callahan, the teacher chapter president of the union.

Educators also plan to rally at the Minnesota Capitol this afternoon to decry decades of underinvestment in public education, and to ask legislators to use some of the budget surplus to fund schools.

“This is not only a Minneapolis values and priorities problem, this is a state of Minnesota values and priorities problem,” said Shaun Laden, the union’s educational support professional chapter president.

On the other side of the street, upbeat music blasted out of speakers while educators marched up and down the sidewalk facing busy Penn Avenue. “Fight the powers that be!” one educator sang along.

Lucy Laney educators walked the picket line on the second day of the Minneapolis educator strike. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Two educators, Shayla Johnson and Angelina Momanyi took a moment to catch up on the picket line. Momanyi works at North High School, but spent last year at Lucy Laney, where Johnson is an associate educator for pre-kindergarteners. 

“We aren’t being heard, and so we have to do something about it,” Johnson said.

Both want to see higher wages for educational support professionals like Johnson, who says she earned $32,000 last year working two jobs.

“People can’t survive on the kind of wages that they’re being paid,” Momanyi said.

The pair also want to see the district expend more effort to recruit and retain educators of color. 

Both praised their own building leadership for making deliberate choices about staffing.

“Those questions about what kind of staff are in the building and what does it mean to have stability on the Northside is a question of race and racial justice,” Momanyi said.

They said they’d seen an outpouring of support on the picket line from Laney and North High families, who have developed strong relationships with educators of color.

“They build relationships with people that look like them, and they trust us,” Johnson said. For students, she added, “You have to trust first, then we learn.”

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 7:14 p.m.

Governor Tim Walz, a former high school geography teacher, said during a Capitol press conference Tuesday that he wanted to see Minneapolis educators and the district reach a fair deal.

“We have educational support professionals, some of them making less than $24,000 a year,” Walz said. “As a classroom teacher, I know how critical they were for the success of my students and my teaching.”

His budget proposal, which Walz introduced in January, addresses the issues at the heart of the strike, he said: mental health services for students and funds to train and recruit educational support professionals.

“I can tell you these are folks working in many cases one-on-one with special needs students that absolutely change their lives,” Walz said of the educational support professionals. “So I support their right to collectively bargain.”

Walz’s budget proposal would also increase state education funding and reduce cross-subsidies. (These are costs that districts incur for mandated services like special education and English language learning; more on these below.)

The governor said he has been briefed on negotiations by the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

“Our mediators are doing the best they can,” Walz said. “Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer. I think we will—I know we will—reach a consensus that is both best for our students, best for our parents, best for our teachers.”

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 6:42 p.m.

Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff and school board chair Kim Ellison addressed reporters in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, expressing sympathy for the educators’ demands and a plea for improvements in education funding. 

“I’m here to say very clearly the sticking point is just what Superintendent Graff will tell you,” Ellison said. “We can’t spend money we don’t have.”

Large salary increases for teachers—the union’s latest request is a 12 percent raise for teachers next year—would result in cuts elsewhere, she warned. “And we all know where those cuts historically have happened,” she said. “It’s going to affect our students of color and our students most in need.”

Ellison said that she and several other board members had been at the table during negotiations over the weekend, and that Graff was operating under the parameters the board had set.

“MFT has made no movement toward realistic salary proposals,” she said (MFT is the educators union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers). “And they have removed any reference to ways we can build a more diverse workforce.”

The union and district held long negotiation sessions with mediators through the weekend and on Monday, but by Tuesday those negotiations had, for the moment, stopped. In fact, the union and district seemed to have different information about when those sessions would resume.

Graff has been largely unavailable for media interviews in the runup to the strike, providing information through videos or statements on the district website. His appearance with Ellison seemed to present a united front: The superintendent and the board wish they had more funding for their students and teachers, but simply do not.

“Obviously, we’re here because we have not done right by our students,” he said. “The finances that we have are not enough to provide the support that we need to provide.” 

This same challenge happens every year, Graff said, as the state legislature underfunds Minneapolis special education and English language services by $60 million annually. (That’s called a cross-subsidy—more on this topic below.) “At some point, it has to stop,” he said.

In the immediate term, the district needs to focus on settling the contract, he said. “The long-term issue for us is we’ve got to figure out this funding,” he said. “We’ve got to do things differently.”

Graff said district and union proposals remain nearly $100 million apart. (Graff said the district has a $650 million budget for operations in 2021–2022.) He had not been in contact with legislators or the governor about the district’s finances, he said. And while Graff said he wanted to resume negotiation as soon as possible, he had not heard back from the union about scheduling more mediation.

“My ask is that we get to the table, we negotiate in good faith, and we figure this out as quickly as possible,” he said.

As for a pay boost for educational support professionals: Graff said that throughout his career, he’d never seen a 40-hour schedule for this category of school employees. “Certainly we want to expand those hours if possible, which would increase wages,” he said. “That’s where we are as a district.”

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 6:22 p.m.

Striking educators gathered at noon outside the Minneapolis Public Schools Nutrition Service Center for a march to the district headquarters. Two Teamster semi trucks had blocked off the road to shield people from traffic. 

The crowd warmed up to a chant of “The people united will never be defeated.” Then, a semi rolled out in front of the strikers on the path toward district offices.

Thousands of educators marched down North Lyndale Avenue, filling both lanes of two long city blocks. Crescendoing cheers and ringing cowbells filled the air as strikers chanted, “MFT ESP!”

At the Davis Center, Marcia Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School, led the educators in a call-and-response chant. 

“What about the kids?” Howard said.

“Exactly!” they chorused back: meaning, yes, that’s why we’re on strike.

“What about equity?”

“Exactly!”

“What about educators of color?”

“Exactly!”

“We are out here because we care about the community, them kids, and our calling!” Howard continued. “What about the kids?”

“Exactly!”

“And we mean that shit,” she concluded.

Thousands of striking educators arrive at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters after a march. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 11:51 a.m.

Minneapolis teachers have dropped their demand for a 20 percent raise, union leaders confirmed.

They had initially asked for the 20 percent increase to make up for years of stagnant pay that failed to keep pace with inflation. This left Minneapolis teachers earning less than their peers in many neighboring districts. Now, striking educators are asking for about half that increase—but those numbers are fluctuating as negotiations continue. (The district says they’re now asking for 12 percent.)

“I can’t stress enough that all we want is competitive pay,” said Greta Callahan, teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals. “The only number we are hard on is $35,000 for ESPs”—that is, educational support professionals.

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 11:37 a.m.

As educators prepared to strike, Democratic legislators from Minneapolis spoke about the imperative to use the state’s $9 billion budget surplus to fund education.

“Education is our top priority right now,” said Patricia Torres Ray, a Democratic state senator from south Minneapolis, in an interview with Sahan Journal. “I feel very, very, very strongly that this needs to be the number-one priority for us to address with the $9 billion we have.”

But a simple solution may prove elusive in the divided legislature. Democrats control the House, while Republicans have the majority in the Senate.

Senator Paul Gazelka (R–East Gull Lake), the former Senate majority leader who is now pursuing the Republican gubernatorial nomination, threw cold water on hopes of a simple bipartisan solution.

​​https://twitter.com/paulgazelka/status/1501039021220589570

More on legislators’ response to the strike below.

Update: Tuesday, March 8, 10:44 a.m.

At Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, a volunteer passed out handwarmers to educators clad in blue scarves and hats. Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” blared from a stereo in a truck. One educator danced the worm on the sidewalk.

Arielle Rocca, who teaches college and career readiness at Patrick Henry High School’s Community Connected Academy, said she was on strike to win higher wages for educational support professionals and expand retention protections for teachers of color. 

“I think that the district and the union have both had parts to play in the lack of retention of teachers of color as well as ESP wages being so low,” she said. “So I’m glad we’re here right now in this moment.”

Rocca’s friend Heather Hauck, who coordinates the school’s International Baccalaureate program, agreed. As a third-year teacher, she lacks tenure protections and can be let go for any reason. 

“As a teacher of color, we know that a lot of us are newer: first- through third-year teachers,” Hauck said. “So many times they’re let go first.”

Heather Hauck and Arielle Rocca, teachers at north Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School, picketed outside their school Tuesday morning. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Just catching up on the strike? Here’s a look at the key sticking points:

Mental health

Throughout contract negotiations, Minneapolis and St. Paul educators both identified the need for additional mental health support, like counselors and social workers. In the wake of two pandemic years, the murder of George Floyd, social unrest, and rising crime, educators and students statewide have seen an increase in mental health needs and a decrease in mental health resources.

“It’s just an explosion of needs,” said Daniel Perez, a social worker at Green Central Elementary School, in south Minneapolis. “We can’t keep up, especially with the staffing levels that we have.”

For Perez, high caseloads mean that social workers are not able to reach families easily in response to chronic student absences. It may take a week to call back a parent—even as a student experiences more and more challenges and crises. 

“It is not okay to do business as usual as if COVID is not happening, as if kiddos didn’t get impacted by the many atrocities in our cities,” Perez said. “We’re doing this for our kids. Our kids deserve better.”

Daniel Perez with a picket sign outside Green Central Elementary School on the first day of the Minneapolis educators strike. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

In an update posted March 6, St. Paul Public Schools wrote that it had offered to maintain existing mental health teams at its schools and hire four additional psychologists. Though details of the new labor deal were not immediately available, the St. Paul Federation of Educators said the district ultimately agreed to increased mental health supports.

Minneapolis Public Schools has not provided an update on its proposals for mental health services.

Increased pay for educational support professionals

Raising pay for educational assistants has been a top priority for both unions. About half of all educational support professionals in Minneapolis Public Schools are people of color, while only about a fifth of teachers are. These educators provide support with behavior, family communication, teaching, classroom technology, and special education.

Some feel their work assignments vary at the district’s whim. “My job description is, ‘We can ask you to do anything we want,’” Saida Omar, who has worked as an educational support professional in Minneapolis for 14 years, told Sahan Journal. “That’s how I see it.”

Saida answers tech support calls for the district’s online school, translates for Somali families, and often acts as a liaison between the schools and the Somali community. After 14 years on the job, she earns about $32,000 a year. The Minneapolis union says some educational support professionals make as little as $24,000. 

Some workers skip meals or even sleep in their cars to make ends meet. (For more on these school staff, read why educational support professionals voted to strike here.)

That low pay is driving educators out of the profession. Minneapolis Public Schools has a 22 percent vacancy rate for educational support professional positions. Educators told Sahan Journal that their colleagues are leaving for jobs at FedEx or McDonald’s. That short staffing means the teachers and support staff who remain are stretched even thinner, just as student needs are higher.

Saida Omar poses for a portrait at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers headquarters. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In a March 4 update, Minneapolis Public Schools said the district had offered educational support professionals raises. For the lowest-paid workers, those raises represent a 5.5 to 11.7 percent increase over two years, plus a $2,000 bonus. The district also proposed adding a minimum additional 2.5 hours to the workweek, as many positions are part time.

“Our hard line is for ESPs,” Callahan said. “They have to make $35,000 a year.” Ninety percent should be offered 40-hour workweeks, she added.

Shaun Laden, educational support professional chapter president of the union, said what the district has currently offered is not enough. “Not even close.”

At a Monday night press conference announcing the tentative agreement, St. Paul educators said they’d secured meaningful raises for these educators.

“We have made important ground in getting our lowest paid educators, our educational assistants, many of whom are Black and brown women who look like our students, who are close to our families, the compensation that they deserve,” said Erica Schatzlein, the union’s lead negotiator. Additional details were not immediately available.

Class sizes

The St. Paul Federation of Educators had agreed on class-size limits with the district in a previous contract. But the district originally sought to eliminate those rules to allow more staffing flexibility. After a strike threat, the district agreed to make class-size limits permanent. Leah VanDassor, the St. Paul union president, said they’d secured a small decrease in class sizes as well.

Minneapolis Public Schools does not have class-size limits in writing, but the district contended in its March 4 update that it already has invested in small class sizes through referendum funding approved by voters. The district also said it offered to invest an additional $3 million in reducing class sizes and special-education caseloads in high-need schools.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals scoffed at this and other proposals. “The district is not even pretending to avoid a strike,” the union wrote in a statement late Sunday night. 

Where is the money?

The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, like districts across the country, received an infusion of cash through the American Rescue Plan and other federal stimulus packages.

That money expires in September 2024. Economists have warned that using the one-time funds for ongoing expenses like new hires and salary increases will create financial commitments that districts can’t keep. That’s called a “fiscal cliff.”

Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, facing declining enrollment and an accompanying loss of state funding, are bracing for budget shortfalls in the near future. Spending the one-time federal money on pay raises, they say, would make future budget deficits worse.

But the unions argue that wage increases are necessary to attract and retain educators, especially educational support professionals, during a staffing crisis.

In an effort to address the tension between short-term and long-term needs, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote a letter to state education departments and school districts in December clarifying that they can use federal funds to increase educator compensation. He noted that stress and insufficient pay are the top two reasons educators leave the profession.

“While some districts have expressed concern about investing in increasing compensation with short-term recovery funds, our nation’s children need support now,” Cardona wrote.

He praised states and districts that provide hiring and retention bonuses, those that have increased wages for bus drivers and substitute teachers, and those that are “working towards permanent salary increases.”

What about Minnesota’s $9 billion budget surplus?

A recent budget forecast showed the state with more than a $9 billion surplus. Educators, weary of decades of underfunding from the state legislature, hope that lawmakers can use that money to help.

But even if the divided state legislature can reach an agreement to raise spending—no sure thing—those agreements usually don’t come until right before the mid-May legislative deadline. It’s difficult to see how that timeline could help end the Minneapolis strike in March. 

“I really think since we have a surplus that’s way more than we were anticipating, we should allocate enough money to fully fund the system,” said Representative Hodan Hassan (DFL–Minneapolis), the vice chair of the House education policy committee.

She said she supported the teachers, but hoped the strike would not last long. “I really think that the kids can’t afford missing any more school days.”

Torres Ray cautioned that the surplus, too, is one-time funding. The money could pay for mental health support contracts, she suggested, but increasing salaries is a “different conversation.” 

“We’re going to have to be very creative and be in constant communication with the teachers and the school districts to figure out what it is that we can do right now with the funding that we have,” Torres Ray said. 

She stressed that she fully supports the educators. “Absolutely we need to respond to their demand.”

Sydney Jordan, a state representative from northeast Minneapolis who sits on both House education committees (finance and policy), said responsibility for the strike lay at the legislature’s feet.

“The way we’ve been funding education in the state for the past decade-and-a-half or so is broken, and we’re seeing the pieces shattered in front of us,” said Jordan.

Jordan is co-sponsoring bills to increase the state legislature’s contribution to district special education and English language services. Right now, districts across the state pay more to provide these services than the legislature reimburses them for. That’s called a “cross subsidy.” 

On her committees, Jordan has heard from educators across the state who feel devalued, and students who need more mental health support.

“We want to make sure every school in Minnesota is fully funded, not just within our district,” she said. “We have to undo a pattern of neglect and defunding of education. And I think it’s going to take some time.”

What do city officials say?

Several Minneapolis City Council members, including Robin Wonsley Worlobah, Jason Chavez, and Aisha Chughtai were present at the strike announcement press conference. Wonsley Worlobah said she planned to bring a resolution of support to the council.

In a statement, the Office of Mayor Jacob Frey expressed support for fully funded schools.

“Teachers and education support specialists have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic and remain indispensable in shaping the future of Minneapolis students,” the statement said. “They are right to demand fair compensation and conditions that ensure students’ success.” 

Parents and students, especially those of color, are also fatigued by pandemic-driven school closures, the statement continued. “They are right to unite around a shared expectation of safe, reliable, and inclusive public education.”

The Mayor’s office expressed support for DFL proposals to increase education funding. 

“There is a path forward that meets these shared goals and allows MPS to meet fundamental financial needs that keep schools open and support all students, teachers and education support specialists,” the statement concluded.

On Monday night, that path had yet to materialize. Students will be home or in temporary child care arrangements until the union and district can reach an agreement. Educators plan to gather outside their school buildings bright and early Tuesday morning to picket.

Hibah Ansari, Jaida Grey Eagle, and Ben Hovland contributed reporting.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify state Representative Sydney Jordan’s role co-authoring education bills to address funding cross-subsidies.

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