John Brodrick spent 34 years teaching social studies and coaching hockey in St. Paul public schools. Throughout that time he was a dues-paying member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
So it was little surprise that Brodrick was endorsed by the teachers’ union when he first ran for the school board eight years ago. The Democrat went on to win a seat with more votes than any other school board candidate. In 2005, again with the backing of the teachers’ union, he easily won a second term.
Brodrick is currently seeking a third term, but he’ll have to do so without support from the union that he belonged to for more than three decades. Brodrick’s not alone either. The other two incumbent school board members, Tom Goldstein and Elona Street-Stewart, both of whom have been endorsed by the teachers’ federation in the past, are also running without support from the union.
“Obviously as a former teacher and as a lifetime member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers I was personally disappointed,” Brodrick says of the snub. “I am very proud of the work I’ve done over the last eight years. I think in many instances I have been a true voice for teachers.”
The political split stems from a rift that’s played out between the teachers’ union, which has roughly 3,600 members, and the school board over the last two years. Budget shortfalls, labor contract negotiations and proposed school restructurings have all contributed to the tension. Further exacerbating matters has been what the union perceived as heavy-handed tactics by former superintendent Meria Carstarphen.
“To borrow a phrase from a popular children’s book, it was a series of unfortunate events,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “It wasn’t any one big thing.”
Late last year, for instance, the school board was presented with a plan to restructure staffing at three schools – Arlington High School, Humboldt Senior High School and Humboldt Junior High School – that had failed to meet student performance standards. Essentially employees at the three schools, many of whom were veteran teachers, would be required to re-apply for positions within the district. The teachers’ union, according to Ricker, was not asked for any input in the matter.
“The school board was absolutely thrilled with the restructuring plan and our teachers found it be an absolute disaster,” she recalls.
Then in February, the school board publicly supported freezing teacher salaries and benefits for next year in order to deal with looming deficits. The teachers’ union felt like this was a violation of the traditional negotiating process, whereby the two sides hash out contract details jointly.
“Completely ignoring the collective bargaining process was extremely offensive to our members,” says Ricker.
Goldstein counters that they didn’t have much choice given that the school district faced a severe budget deficit for the upcoming year. “This is a difficult time,” he notes. “If this is how the teachers think they need to handle it, I respect that. They’re a union. They have to look out for their members.”
Shortly after the blow-up over the proposed salary freeze, the teachers’ federation held its first screening for school board candidates. The outcome: It opted not to endorse any candidates. Then in June, after Tom Conlon announced that he was stepping down from the board, creating an opening for a partial term, the union screened candidates again. The federation settled on two challengers: Jean O’Connell for a full term and Vallay Varro to serve the remainder of Conlon’s term. None of the incumbents were endorsed.
With the election looming next month, the teacher’s union remains at loggerheads with the school board over a new labor agreement. The current two-year contract expired in June, but Ricker says it’s not unprecedented for negotiations to drag on beyond that point.
“Historically St. Paul has not settled before the contract runs out,” she says. “It’s not unusual for us to begin a new school year without a contract.”
Despite the rebuff from the teachers’ federation, Brodrick continues to view himself as a strong ally of unions. Indeed, he’s endorsed by numerous labor organizations: the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, among others. He expresses bewilderment at the teachers’ federation’s political tactics.
“I’m very personally disappointed, but am I angry?” he asks. “No, at my age I try not to get angry.”