A teachers union filing for mediation is historic in the timeline of teacher labor negotiations. It has not happened in Saint Paul since 1989. Filing for mediation is one of the last steps a union must check off in order to maintain their right to strike. In 1989 the strike was averted by last minute negotiations by the Mayor. It has been since 1946 that the union went on strike. It happened to be the very first teachers strike in the nation, and Local 28’s last.
Since that strike of 1946, the unions relationship with administration has been relatively amicable and professional. There has been a long tradition of working together to improve the teaching environment and the learning environment (The same thing). This year negotiations are plodding along as usual, but with a key difference.
For the first time, the teacher’s union is asking for mediation on issues that are completely student related. The union and district do not need mediation on teachers needs. Benefits and compensation have been fairly negotiated, and relatively resolved.
So what do the teachers want to go to mediation about? Two main things. The first issue is student class size. In a district of high poverty concentration, a classroom of Thirty students may have 25-27 high needs, underprivileged students. Each one of these students needs and deserves a little more because they come to school with a little less. All students are capable of learning at high levels, no matter what their background. However, the more of them concentrated into one classroom, the more difficult it becomes. The union wants a hard cap on class sizes. The district wants an average to be set. The problem with going by an average, is that some classes, like the fourth year of a foreign language, might have ten kids, meaning another class could have fifty and still average out to thirty. The class size cap seems reasonable. The union also wants to help make Special Education caseloads more manageable. This is a complex issue I do not have the expertise to go into. Just realize that special education teachers often have so much paperwork they are given entire days off from students to complete it!
Another issue on the table is the deadline in which schools need to start “restructuring”. This is the death penalty of NCLB. Teachers are all let go and must find new positions. Saint Paul has always used the “interview and select” process when hiring new teachers. Seniority really does not come into play until after school is over. Principals are allowed to interview any teachers they want, and select the ones they want regardless of seniority. The idea that senior teachers are “bumping” others just based on seniority has always been a myth in Saint Paul. To maintain a rigorous interview and select process, the Union wants a December deadline to start restructuring planing for the next year. This is in the best interest of the schools trying to find the best teachers and teachers having time to find the best fit for them.
These are just some of the issues the union is negotiating for. Of course compensation and benefits are being discussed, but they are secondary to the negotiating process. The union, of course, is still fighting for the best possible working conditions for teachers. You cannot separate the classroom environment from the teachers environment.
Full Disclosure: I am a member of SPFT Local 28