Trust an ongoing issue between teachers, district
By Charles Hallman
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) and St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) both cite “seven community-developed priorities” in the three-year “landmark contract” that was settled last month and approved earlier this month. These priorities include smaller classes and hiring more teachers and staff.
Two key persons directly involved in the negotiations, SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker and SPPS Chief of Staff Michelle Walker, last week spoke to the MSR in separate interviews. Both admit that smaller classes, which the union wanted, was a sticking point in the negotiations.
According to 2006-13 district data, the average elementary class size increased from 23.2 students per class in 2006-07 to 24.8 students per class in 2012-13, with the biggest growth in second-grade classes. Junior high classes increased by an average of 0.75 students per class, and junior high physical education classes grew from 26 students to 31 students per class.
High school classes, however, decreased by three students, from 29 to 26. Math classes had the biggest reduction, from 27 students to 23.
The district eventually agreed “to calculate elementary class-size limits within each school at each grade level,” Walker pointed out. Two ranges will be established: 22 to 25 students for kindergarten through third grade in “high poverty” schools, and 22 to 27 students in “lower-poverty schools.”
Ricker noted that the union pushed and got “staffing language” in the new contract that runs through June 2015 and is retroactive to the beginning of this school year. At least 42 new full-time staff will be hired in the next two years.
Asked if these hires will be diverse, Walker said, “We are also looking for ways to increase our staff, Black teachers in particular but our staff of color in general, and want to be in position to bring in as many qualified individuals that reflect our student population.”
However, she added that no “particular percentage” in regards to hiring Blacks and other persons of color was set. “We believe that it is an asset to be able to bring the diversity of people of color to our workforce,” continued Walker, “and we are committed to doing that wherever we can.”
Asked to clarify a St. Paul newspaper’s published report that SPPS mostly will reassign existing staff rather than hiring new ones, Walker explained, “There are teachers on special assignment, such as behavior specialists, counselors or others under that category.” The district will use an estimated $11 million dollars “and reallocate [the funds]” to fill needed classroom positions in addition to hiring new staff, she added.
“They [the newspaper] reported it wrong,” said Ricker. “They [the district] have to follow our contract language.”
Why did it take nearly nine months to settle on a new contract?
“Unfortunately, the last time we negotiated it also was nine months,” recalled Walker. “I think…people heard each other differently, but the conversations have been going on for quite some time.”
“It took so long because the district was refusing to discuss these really important issues with us” such as reducing class sizes, reported Ricker. “We may be still negotiating now” if a teachers’ strike threat early in March hadn’t occurred. A 23-hour marathon mediation session last month finally got the contract done.
“There was a willingness on both parts to really get to the table and have a conversation to avoid what would not have been a good solution for any of our families,” noted Walker. “[But] I would not say that [a possible strike] was the reason why we settled the contract.”
“Going on strike is the last thing any of us wanted to do,” admitted Ricker.
St. Paul elementary school teacher Aaron Benner last week told the MSR, “I was impressed with our union that they didn’t back down from the district.” He added, however, “I was disappointed that there was no mention on our current special-ed[ucation] model.”
How does the new contract help to address the district’s achievement gap issues? “I think every contract negotiation time is an opportunity to get us toward that goal and to do whatever
we can to make that [learning] experience for all of our children,” said Walker.
“As long as this district continues to have the achievement gap that it does, then our primary focus both as administration and management and our teaching staff is looking for ways to address that, and how we create a system and a structure that is going to eliminate these racial disparities.”
However, Benner expressed doubt: “We [as teachers] don’t trust the school district,” he admitted, adding that the contract did not address other important issues such as student behavior, which he states should be “priority number one.
“Students are not being treated the same,” he pointed out. “You talk about racial equality, but you cannot have a different set of standards for Black students just because you want to lower the [Black] suspension rate.”
The teacher also questioned how SPPS will ensure smaller class sizes. “Who’s going to record class sizes when it gets 28, 29, 30 [students]? How will it be enforced? It sounds great in theory, but it has to have some teeth to it.”
Reiterated Ricker, “We do have a provision where both sides, and the school board in efforts to keep families together, enrollment patterns, etc., where we have to make an exception to the contract.” The union president added that a “class-size exception committee” made up of school principals, assistant superintendents, a teacher “from the affected classroom or program area,” union representatives, and a parent selected by the school principal will be used if needed.
What continuing issues must both sides still work toward?
“We continue to want to discuss those decisions that get made about teaching and learning every day,” said Ricker. “Whether they are decisions about curriculum, or schedules, or school calendar, there always is going to be another issue where we are going to want to weigh in on.”
“This is the work we have to do as a district, as a union, to find ways to collaborate and work together,” stated Walker. “This district has had a long history of working well with the union. We had a little rocky time the last few months… We all want the same thing, which is the best for our children. And we have to stay committed to finding ways to make that happen.”
“There is no trust throughout the district with teachers on this current administration,” concluded Benner. “They are not transparent. We are very, very leery of what the district says.”
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