With $150M shortfall looming, St. Paul schools and union contract proposals already have huge gap

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St. Paul Public Schools and the union representing its educators are negotiating a new contract as a pending $150 million budget shortfall looms in the upcoming school year.

And while negotiations are still in early stages, one thing is certain — there’s already a huge gap between what the school district says it’s willing to spend and what the St. Paul Federation of Educators hopes to get out of the upcoming two-year contract, which will replace the last one that expired in June.

Top objectives for the union — which represents around 4,000 teachers, educational assistants and community service professionals — include wage increases, adjustment to insurance, and more funding for student mental health support services.

District spokeswoman Erica Wacker said school officials so far have tallied up about $106 million in additional spending in 23 of the 46 proposals put forth by the union during negotiations, and the school district has said it’s only willing to allocate $12.4 million in additional funding.

$94 million gap

That already puts a roughly $94 million gap between what the district is willing to spend and what the educators union has requested, already much higher than what the district saw in 2022 when teachers came within minutes of striking.

That year, educators wanted about $60 million in increases, according to district estimates at the time, and the school district said it was only willing to increase spending by about $7.4 million.

District and union leaders reached a contract mere minutes before the next day’s classes were canceled. That deal included $3,000 bonuses, 2% raises and class size reductions.

Two years ago, St. Paul schools had federal pandemic aid money, and St. Paul’s school board earlier this year approved a $1 billion budget, the district’s biggest ever.

But significant shortfalls are on the horizon. Looming over contract negotiations is a projected $150 million budget shortfall expected in the 2024-2025 school year as federal pandemic aid dries up. District officials say their hands are tied by the fiscal situation.

St. Paul teachers went on strike four four days in 2020, their second strike in history, and almost went on strike in 2018.

Where things stand

Negotiations are still in their early stages, but early proposals from the district and union give a look at where things stand.

In the first year of the upcoming contract, the union is asking for a $7,500 pay bump for all teachers and community service professionals in the district, as well as a 7.5% raise in the second year. They’re also asking for a $5.43 an hour raise for educational assistants followed by a 7.5% raise in the second year.

Meanwhile, the school district is offering a 1% cost of living adjustment in the first year of the contract for teachers and school community service professional sand 1.5% in the second year. Educational assistants would get two consecutive 1.5% raises.

St. Paul teachers are among the highest-paid in the state of Minnesota. In the 2022-2023 school year, the average teacher salary was $87,250, according to data from the Minnesota Professional Educator and Licensing Standards Board, placing the district in the top 10 statewide.

Under the deal reached in 2022, educational assistants got hourly raises of $1 or $1.25 and another $1 the second year. By 2023, they were expected to make between $18.85 and $37.55 per hour.

So far the St. Paul Federation of Educators has submitted 46 proposals, though the final picture of all their requests hasn’t emerged. But the district already is beginning to turn some down.

Negotiation meeting

At a negotiation meeting Thursday night, the district rejected two of the proposals put forward by the union.

One called for additional mental health and school counseling staff. Another requesting more support for restorative practices — shifting away from traditional discipline like suspensions and emphasizing community building.

In its responses, the district said it agreed with the intent of both proposals, but estimated the mental health proposal would cost an additional $25 million and the restorative practices proposal could cost $2.2 million.

District leaders also told union leaders that they were not in a position to agree to the proposals because the union hadn’t yet submitted all of its requests.

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