Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, March 3, 2014 – When a teachers strike loomed last month in the St. Paul Public Schools district, parents joined forces on Facebook, peppered the school board with emails and rallied in front of district headquarters.
When the district and teachers reached a contract agreement, union leaders credited parents. The superintendent called them “amazing.”
Now, some of those parents are asking: What’s next?
They are talking about closely tracking the new contract’s impact, lobbying the state Legislature and launching a districtwide parent-teacher organization.
In a more centralized district where once influential parent-staffer councils are largely defunct, parents say the push to avert a strike left them feeling empowered. They would like to keep the momentum going — even as some acknowledge that might be a tall order with the specter of a walkout banished.
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the district both say they are interested in tapping the surge in parent involvement. Several tentative contract agreements open new opportunities for parents to have some say in school affairs — from class size to school discipline.
“I think we, as parents, have seen how we can mobilize,” said Jennifer Larsen Newburg, a parent at Expo Elementary. “The school district really listened to us, and that’s a very powerful thing.”
In St. Paul, the teachers union worked to cultivate parent support early on. It sought input in crafting its proposals and stayed in touch with a core group as the talks moved behind closed doors. It invited families to join teachers at January school rallies in support of the union’s proposals.
Parents sprang into action when union leadership started discussing a strike vote. They lobbied district leaders and led “parent patrols” to talk contract proposals with families picking up their children from school.
More than 1,400 parents and teachers joined an “I stand with SPFT” Facebook page in support of the federation. Many turned out for a federation rally days before an almost 24-hour bargaining session yielded an agreement.
In a press conference, Superintendent Valeria Silva suggested the message parents sent did more than even the threat of a strike did to bring the two sides closer.
“Those parents came here, and they were able to stand up and say, ‘We love teachers,’ ” she said.
Parents have offered largely positive feedback on the two-year contract, which teachers vote on on Tuesday. Many praised a class-size agreement that blends the union’s push for more consistency and the district’s wish to maintain flexibility. Some said they were glad to see concrete commitments to hire support staff and maintain early childhood funding — even if they landed in board resolutions rather than the contract.
“It looks like the classic compromise agreement where neither side got exactly what they wanted,” said Eric Foster, the father of a preschooler at Nokomis Montessori.
The $33 million deal also included $22 million in wage and benefit increases over two years.
Most of the concerns parents voice have to do with tradeoffs the class-size settlement might require in some schools. The two sides agreed the district would send back to the classroom as many as 80 educators now in other roles. Many handle administrative duties or coach less experienced teachers.
But parents worry some educators who work closely with small groups of struggling or advanced students might be affected, too. An interest in how the district implements the agreements has spurred a discussion — online and off — about staying engaged.
“My hope is that we will not just fall to the wayside and chat occasionally,” wrote parent Zuki Ellis on Facebook.
Laura Bloomberg, associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said parent advocacy groups often fizzle out after hitting a milestone that galvanized families: a levy referendum, a school board election, a contract settlement.
Still, “sometimes they do sustain themselves and become strong advocacy efforts,” said Bloomberg, a former principal and school board member in Mahtomedi. “The key message is ‘We’re paying attention here.’ ”
With abundant research on the academic benefits of family engagement, she said, districts should tap parent interest even if it springs from a controversy. But district leaders should also watch out for “missing narratives”: Are most of these parents from a handful of schools? Do they reflect the district’s economic and racial diversity?
“It is next to impossible to keep advocacy burning at a decent clip without an end goal in sight,” said Mary Cecconi of the Minnesota nonprofit Parents United for Public Schools.
Cecconi’s group started 12 years ago, when — with encouragement from superintendents — parents frustrated with stagnant funding banded to lobby the Legislature. Sometimes, Cecconi said, parents start out with a “let’s just do it” mindset and run up against the tangle of funding, legal and other limitations districts face.
In New York City, a parent-driven nonprofit called Class Size Matters has garnered national attention for its advocacy, which sprang from opposition to the education agenda of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In Minneapolis, parents started Put Kids First, which has taken aim at the key role seniority plays in hiring and layoffs. For about six years, the group has monitored contract talks, endorsed school board members and lobbied at the state Legislature.
Co-founder Seth Kirk said keeping parents engaged is no easy task: “To get a critical mass of parents to focus on a district-level issue is very difficult.”
In St. Paul, parents have started brainstorming ideas to stay involved. Nick Faber, a member of the union’s bargaining team, said the federation wants to facilitate that discussion. The union has encouraged parents to attend meetings of the joint district-union professional issues committee and speak up on a new five-year district strategic plan.
Mary Doran, the school board chair, said she welcomes the interest as well. She has urged parents to volunteer in a school, attend the district’s Parent Academy or join one of several parent councils the district hosts.
“I want to capture this energy,” Doran said.
Some parents have argued the group should affirm its independence. The priorities of parents and teachers often overlap, said parent Katie Sterns, but: “If parents hope to effect change, we need to band together independently and create our own platform with our own agenda.”
Larsen Newberg, the Expo parent, suggested renaming the page “I stand with the students of SPPS.” She said she loves the teachers at Expo and supported them wholeheartedly in the contract standoff. But she believes a parent group should have rapport with teachers and the administration alike.
Fellow Expo parent Marta Shore points out families at different schools who share specific concerns — such as services for English learners — have found each other though the page and negotiations-related events. Maybe what comes out of the process is not necessarily one homogenous advocacy effort, she said.
“There are so many independent minds and people coming in with different priorities,” she said. “I don’t think this will develop into one unified message.