St. Paul teachers approve contract that focuses on quality


Members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers Local 28 voted Jan. 12 to approve a new two-year contract with the St. Paul Public Schools that the union says will give teachers “the support, time and environment necessary to deliver a quality education” to every student in the district. The St. Paul Board of Education gave the contract its approval at a Jan. 13 meeting.

Highlights of the contract, which covers the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, include modest salary increases in both years, so-called “steps and lanes” – rewards for experience and professional development – in both years and new language that expands the role of educators in district decision-making.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of Local 28, said the union’s “biggest wins” in the new contract are issues other than traditional pay and benefits. They include:

• Development of a full-spectrum peer assistance and review (PAR) system. Ricker said Local 28 members “have been exploring and developing the idea of improving our teacher-evaluation system” for almost three years, adding that the new PAR system “will recognize teaching as a profession of life-long learning and move away from deficit-based thinking about teacher evaluation.”

• A new procedure for school restructuring. If, under the No Child Left Behind law or as a result of a vote by the Board of Education, a school building needs to be restructured, the district will now include that school’s teachers in decisions made throughout the restructuring process.

Last year teachers at Arlington and Humboldt high schools “were forced to watch the restructurings happen,” Ricker said. “The district now needs to engage the staff in the building that is in need of restructuring and work with that building to come up with a plan.”

• Exploration of site-governed schools. The district agreed to form a committee charged with exploring statewide legislation passed last year, aimed at spurring creation of public schools that can compete with non-union charter schools.

The legislation enables teachers, parents and community members to create new schools, specifically tailored to a community or niche group, within the public school district – and thereby covered by a union contract.

Ricker called the legislation an “extraordinary opportunity” to “create innovative school environments better designed for individual school populations.”

‘Insulting’ media coverage
The new contract language represents a significant increase in the say teachers will have in decisions that affect their teaching environment. Yet much of the local media’s coverage of negotiations between the district and the union focused on wages.

The Jan. 10 St. Paul Pioneer Press carried an editorial on the contract entitled “Raises Out of Season,” and a Jan. 13 Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial called raises for teachers “hard to justify.”

Ricker said the raises – $1,000 for all teachers in the first year and 1 percent across the board in the second – are a small step in the union’s effort to stabilize the educational environment for St. Paul students by making teaching a sustainable profession.

“It’s insulting that (the editorials) only see our contract in terms of the money,” Ricker said. “We are trying to create the sort of career-track jobs that enable teachers to own homes in the community in which they work and be members of society.

“We want teaching to be a sustainable profession, and having sustainable wages and benefits is another way of stabilizing the educational environment for our students. We’re talking about some students who, the most stable environment they have is their school environment.”

‘Tumultuous’ negotiations
Ricker also said negotiations with the district went “a lot more tumultuously than they typically do.”

After the school board voted last February to move forward a budget proposal calling for a wage freeze, Local 28 accused board members of sidestepping negotiations and bargaining in public.

“They were talking about us, but not to us,” Ricker said.

The union made its first financial offer in July 2009. The district responded about a month later, but Ricker said the first “serious” offer from the district came shortly after the Nov. 3 election.

In that election Local 28 sent a strong message to board members, passing on endorsement of any incumbents seeking re-election and, instead, backing two winners: DFLer Vallay Varro, who won a special election for an open seat, and independent challenger Jean O’Connell, who unseated incumbent Tom Goldstein.

Negotiations progressed as the Jan. 15 state-imposed deadline for school districts to reach agreements with their teachers’ unions approached. The union announced a tentative agreement Jan. 5.

About 83 percent of voting members supported the contract in the Jan. 12 vote.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers represents 4,000 teachers, educational assistants and school and community professionals in the St. Paul Public Schools.

Michael Moore edits the St. Paul Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at the federation’s website.