Will St. Paul’s New Teacher Contract Make Schools Less Safe?

Of all the colloquialisms coined by my sainted mother, my favorite just might be, “After the revolution, we’ll all have shit on our strawberries.”

It communicates perfectly the impression created by the first details of the proposed contract settlement between St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers union.

The fine print has yet to be released publicly but since teachers got a glimpse Monday the general parameters have made the newspapers, social media and the various ed community grapevines. Sounds like the deal includes much of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ original wish list.

The union’s ask was audacious indeed, and if they survived various provisions are worthy of standalone posts. For the moment, though, let’s focus on the messy, two-sided fertilization of those strawberries.

During the final, round-the-clock negotiating session two of the four union-backed school board members who were sworn in two months ago were at the table. The issues they were negotiating were the same ones the union recruited them to attend to and organized the community to support.

And yet, what seems like fertilizer from one vantage….

Headline after headline over the last year has decried discipline issues in St. Paul schools, a key issue in last fall’s board election. The rarely challenged line has been that district leaders refuse to provide teachers with the supports needed to ensure orderly classrooms.

What if some of those supports—behavior specialists, classroom aides and social-emotional learning programs—have fallen prey to past rounds of budget-cutting necessitated by BOTH lagging state funding and union demands?

You have to wonder if at some point in those blurry wee hours the newcomers did a little back-of-the-envelope math regarding the pre-election promises—art, music–they made to St. Paul families and, given the concessions they were agreeing to, wondered how they will pay for them.

They’d just come off of a reported 26 straight hours of intensive bargaining, so it also might not have occurred to them that the concessions they were making have what lawmakers call “tails” and ed finance types call “legacy costs.”

Meaning, when you increase the pay of your entire workforce by a certain percentage and then increase its size your fixed, structural costs go up exponentially. Instead of a ladder, picture an inverted pyramid—which you need to look at years out.

The retroactive agreement provides federation members with a 2 percent raise in its first year (the second half of the current year) and 2.3 percent in the second. Which is not a fortune, but it is twice as much as the “new money” state lawmakers and the governor last year approved for districts.

Put another way, it’s $21 million over the next two years. And it is atop automatic increases for years of experience and continuing education. And it is going to the best-paid teacher corps in the state, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. St. Paul’s teachers earned an average of $70,166 last year.

It’s also not the largest financial concession the district will make. This is the second contract in a row that will increase the number of district employees who are federation members. If the district is again forced to staunch the red ink the way it did with last year’s contract settlement, those new salaries will come at the expense of classroom aides, intervention specialists and community groups that provide social-emotional learning.

How’s that? This year’s 2 percent funding increase from the state barely makes a dent in the painful cuts of the last decade. So even with “new” money on the table, districts throughout the state are looking at cuts.

Like many other districts, St. Paul spends more than 85 percent of its budget on salaries. So when a principal gets the next year’s budget and sees it’s lower, he or she has some choices to make: Do you lay off the art teacher or a couple of classroom aides?

The last contract included agreements to cap class sizes and teacher workloads in every grade. But those caps are nowhere near the 17-student level that research has found has an impact on academic achievement.

Nor has anyone questioned whether this particular reduction is the most cost-effective way to support teachers. The cost to reduce kindergarten class sizes throughout the district from 25 to 24, for instance, is $1 million a year.

Meanwhile, the additional staff required to fulfill the class-size agreement cost some $14 million—which was found by eliminating 120 academic and behavioral intervention specialists. Which translates to the loss of at least two skilled support professionals per building.

It’s perhaps important to note that these specialists are crucial to strong school cultures in many places. The ultimate positive discipline strategy is student engagement. Kids who are behind academically or who are struggling with underlying emotional or behavioral issues by definition aren’t engaged.

Somehow, though, this wrinkle got sidestepped in the discussion about discipline problems resulting from a lack of support from HQ.

Compounding this: Scores of classroom aides—who comprise a large portion of the adults of color in schools, and who work directly with the most challenged learners—were laid off because of the shortfall. Thankfully, many were hired back when state aid became available. It’s reasonable to think the next round of cutting starts here.

Last year’s contract also calls for the addition of the equivalent of 32 counselors, psychologists, social workers and other student support professionals and another 10 this year—plus the new positions included in this year’s settlement. Last year this agreement left the district scrambling to find another $6 million on top of the $14 million made up by eliminating the intervention specialists.

Oh, hey, and inflation? Which runs to $8-$9 million a year?

Family and community engagement, another area the federation has complained about, took a $700,000 hit. This includes the community groups that have partnerships with the schools to provide social-emotional learning, among other things. And again, the adults who staff them provide crucial diversity.

The exact details of the new deal remain to be seen, but the federation’s original bargaining proposal addressed school climate issues by calling for one new staff member and $100,000 to fund a restorative justice plan for each school. Which is roughly the same amount of money as the intervention specialists of yore—but the money and the plan are controlled by the teachers at each site.

Side note to be explored later: Restorative discipline practices, done meaningfully, require far more work on the part of the classroom teacher than the local discussion has yet acknowledged.

Where, you are wondering, does all of this come from? School districts are terrific at generating PowerPoints. St. Paul Public Schools’ website is packed with budget and staffing documents. And reading a bunch of them cements the impression that what’s at issue here is actually who gets to control the district’s future.

In the end, of course, what matters is outcomes. The new regime was swept in on a wave of audacious promises. Here’s hoping against hope they have a roadmap.


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