Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, February 15, 2014 – The St. Paul district and teachers union negotiating teams have huddled behind closed doors in increasingly tense contract talks.
But some of the most important conversations may have played out outside the bargaining room, where the two sides have curried public support and enlisted allies.
Long before raising the specter of an educator strike, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers launched an outreach effort with parents and ramped it up as talks grew more contentious. Now, a parent campaign is pressing school board members to yield ground on educators’ proposals.
District leaders, meanwhile, have stepped up a bid to explain why they have balked at union proposals with a Feb. 24 strike vote looming. The mayor, business leaders and others have voiced some support for the district’s stance.
In many districts, teacher contract negotiation remains a relatively quiet affair that draws little public involvement, at least until the sides hit a stalemate. But as Minnesota’s biggest urban districts and unions have set more ambitious negotiation agendas, their standoffs have played out much more publicly.
“Each side knows they can get a better deal inside the bargaining room if they have more public support outside the bargaining room,” said Aaron Sojourner, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota.
In Minneapolis, current negotiations also started out with intense outreach — though the two sides agreed to quiet down when a state mediator got involved.
In St. Paul, district and teacher negotiators will return to the bargaining table Feb. 20. They are slated to tackle union proposals to lower class sizes and hire more student support staff as well as a wage and benefits package.
Both sides have said they are eager to avert a strike that would shutter all schools in the 39,000-student district, the state’s second-largest.
THE UNION’S PUSH
The St. Paul teachers union’s unprecedented outreach effort has gotten national attention.
The federation invited parents and residents to book readings and discussions before it presented its contract proposals nine months ago. Then, when the district brought in a state mediator and the talks moved behind closed doors, the union intensified efforts to keep its proposals in the spotlight.
Members knocked on doors. They produced videos featuring district nurses, counselors and social workers, whose ranks the federation wants to increase. The union made and distributed yard signs and launched an online signature drive.
When families attended the district’s annual school choice fair, teachers were there to greet them and pass out fliers in several languages. Educators also invited parents to join them when they rallied in front of schools last month in support of the union’s proposals.
That outreach seems to be paying off since union leadership this past Monday called for a strike vote.
Parents have started an “I stand with SPFT” Facebook page, which quickly drew more than 900 members, including some teachers. On it, parents have shared contact information for board members and district administrators. They have urged each other to turn out for a union rally at the Feb. 18 school board meeting and have aired various frustrations with the district and questioned its cost estimate for union proposals.
“I think parents are hungry for information,” said Elizabeth Karre, a parent and an early member of the page. “They want to talk about why they want the union proposals.”
Facebook page members have planned “parent patrols” to talk up the proposals to families picking up kids from school. Union leaders have chimed in, inviting parents to pick up materials at the federation’s headquarters.
The page has also become a forum to discuss child care options during a possible strike and — perhaps troubling to both sides this school choice season — swap charter school recommendations.
Karre said she has followed the talks closely, reading information on the district’s website and “The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve,” a document laying out the union’s priorities in detail. Last week, she wrote St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva and the board and scheduled a phone chat with a board member who passed on district budget information.
In her first month as a school board chair, Mary Doran has lost count of the emails and calls she has received. Residents have stopped her at the grocery store or in front of her children’s schools.
Doran, who like fellow board members received a union endorsement, has heard from parents and others sympathetic to the district’s position. Most of the communication has been from parents supportive of the federation’s proposals, which naturally resonate with many families.
“Smaller class sizes, more nurses and counselors — who doesn’t want these things?” Doran said. “I want these things. But I am the one who has to be realistic and make decisions based on the budget numbers I see.”
The district’s outreach has been decidedly lower-key. In some ways, districts are more limited in how much they can do, especially since state mediators frown upon “negotiating in public.”
The district has discussed its proposals with its parent groups. Last week, it sent an email to local nonprofits and businesses it considers community partners. In it, Silva spelled out the district’s position: The union proposals merit discussion, but in total they would cost $150 million over two years and take away important flexibility from district leaders.
The email noted that the overwhelming majority of class sizes are within ranges set in tandem with the union. It also pointed out that St. Paul educators receive among the highest wages and benefits for teachers in the state.
By the time that email went out, Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, had penned an editorial on the possible strike. He says he relates to district concerns about the union’s proposals, but the chamber wants to engage with both sides.
“We are going to reach out to both parties and say, ‘Please, please, please, reach a resolution,’ ” he said.
Meanwhile, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman voiced some support for the district’s position in an unrelated legislative hearing Wednesday.
Coleman said he supported the union’s desire for things like caps on class sizes and more support staff. But many of the union’s proposals are costly and the district has only so much money, he added.
“I think while we all agree with the goals; there are tactical and practical challenges in getting there,” Coleman said.
THE NEW MODEL?
Across the river in Minneapolis, both sides put a premium on community outreach. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson advocated for negotiation priorities such as a longer school day in a well-publicized Minneapolis Library kickoff event last spring. She has worked to build alliances with minority community leaders, who have since criticized the union’s decision to seek help from a mediator.
The Minneapolis union in turn sought early on to engage parents with its priorities, which include smaller class sizes and less testing.
“There’s a growing trend of trying to do outreach on both sides,” said Mary Cecconi, the head of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools. “They get this is essential now.”
For teachers unions, discussing contract proposals has become an arena to push back against public attacks and policies seeking to limit the influence of organized labor.
“The unions are trying to make their case with the public partly as a result of the scrutiny they feel under,” said Katharine Strunk, an education union expert at University of Southern California.
Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president, says educators and their unions have ramped up efforts to engage more directly with parents beyond contract talks.
The St. Paul Federation has been a trendsetter nationally in advocating publicly for its negotiations priorities. But unions in New York and in Chicago in the run-up to a 2012 teacher strike there have also put up robust communications efforts.
“Otherwise, the message is that all the educators care about is salaries,” she said. “We are debunking a myth about what we’re trying to do.”
What about the conventional wisdom that negotiating in public can strain talks between bargaining teams? There’s room for both keeping the public informed and having productive back-and-forth at the bargaining table, Weingarten said.
Meanwhile, districts such as St. Paul have sought to make the case that some union proposals make for sensible policy issues best tackled by lawmakers: Putting issues such as student-support staffing that are closely tied to funding on the negotiating table takes the pressure off legislators to act on policies that can benefit students across the board.
In St. Paul, Kramer says he hopes good news about the district’s graduation rates, slated for release this week, will shift the tone of the talks: “This is affirmation that the work the teachers and the district have been doing together is yielding results.”