St. Paul teachers’ contract rewards quality, defines ‘ideal day’

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They may be just days removed from a contract vote, but already some members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers are fired up about the next round of negotiations with the St. Paul Public Schools.

Both the school district and the teachers’ union characterized the new two-year contract, approved by 77 percent of members Jan. 10, as a success, but union President Mary Catherine Ricker admitted the two sides left some concerns – about health care and workforce diversity, in particular – on the bargaining table.

“Our members are feeling very restless for the next contract already,” Ricker said. “I’ve already had a lot of emails about the next contract. Members are definitely willing to continue this conversation.”

Among the contract’s key financial provisions are:
• Salary increases of 2.5 percent this school year and 2.25 percent the next.
• Increased pay for first-year teachers.
• Greater access to longevity pay for teachers who have worked in other school districts.
• Increases of $500 to the yearly stipends teachers earn for gaining National Board Certification and for recertifying after 10 years.

Ricker and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the stipend and salary increases reflect the two sides’ shared commitment to teacher quality.

“Research has shown that teacher quality is the most important ingredient for a student’s success,” Carstarphen said. The contract, she added, “continues a longstanding tradition of having some of the best educators in the state working to help St. Paul students reach beyond their goals.”

Addressing members’ concerns
In membership meetings before negotiations on the new contract began, teachers brought their concerns to the union’s leadership and its bargaining committee. According to Ricker, two chief priorities emerged: making health care affordable and clarifying workload expectations.

The latter priority, of course, was more easily accomplished than the former.

The bargaining committee successfully rewrote the contract’s workload language so that the expectations put on teachers – before, during and after the school day – are more clear. The contract establishes an “ideal day” that, the district said, could eventually increase daily teacher-student interaction by 30 minutes.

“Before this contract there was no standard protocol anywhere in the district for how many meetings a teacher was supposed to have and what their prep time was used for,” Ricker said. “Now we’ve created a standard for every teacher in the district.”

As for affordable health care, Ricker said, St. Paul teachers “are not going to solve the health care crisis for our membership or the community at our bargaining table alone.”

Rather, she said, the solution lies in continuing to partner with Education Minnesota on passing legislation that would create a mandatory, statewide health-insurance pool for all public school employees, and in continuing to support grassroots organizations working for universal health insurance.

“We’ve been in discussions with members about what sort of real solutions exist out there to fix this in the long term, not just to put a band-aid on it at the bargaining table,” Ricker said.

“At the end of the day, if we finally have access to affordable health insurance, but our students and families do not, our working conditions have not improved at all. You can’t teach a student who isn’t there, yet we’re held to the same standard for that student who misses five days with pinkeye as the student who doesn’t.”

Diversity concerns
Between now and the next round of contract talks in 2009, the teachers’ union will continue developing proposals that would “make our contract the most powerful document the district has to attract and retain a diverse workforce,” Ricker said.

Among those proposals are accommodations that would help staff members gain citizenship, and contract language that would facilitate equitable, appropriate religious leave.

Ricker acknowledged that not getting the diversity language into this year’s contract was the most frustrating part of negotiations with the district.

“We’re going to have to keep going back for that because we didn’t finish that conversation with the district. We want language that helps recognize that we’re creating a welcoming environment for diverse staff and not just tolerating diverse staff.”

Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org

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