SPPS Superintendent 'optimistic' teacher strike can be avoided

The superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools says he's optimistic the teachers union and the district will reach an agreement to avoid a strike.

"We have put aside time today, tomorrow, through the weekend to sit down, identify priorities, work with professionals that are there both from the administration and the teachers that are giving their time to put their best ideas forward to make sure this agreement is in place," said Superintendent Joe Gothard at a press conference Thursday.

Negotiations started four months ago. Both sides met every day this week, with Thursday marking the eighth day of mediation. 

"Whenever you can stop looking at it from a pure conflict perspective and start to work towards an end goal I think you start to see obstacles fall to the side," said Laurin Cathey, executive director of human resources and chief negotiator.

"We have a long ways to go for the schools that our students deserve," said Erica Schatzlein, St. Paul Federation of Teachers vice president.

In January, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a settlement is not made. The union's key points are increased wages, smaller class sizes and more attention to special education and English learner programs.

Also among the union's proposals were expanding pre-K to every student in St. Paul and adding 10 full service community schools, which would bring the cost of the union's plan to $160 million. A union spokesperson said the union presented the costlier ideas alongside their key demands, knowing they would be brought up for discussion, but wouldn't end up in the contract.

The district insists demands have to be worked out within the parameters of $2 million of available funding, which union representatives claim would only give teachers a one percent raise.

"There's money to be shifted around and had, like not all of the things that we're asking for need to be new spending," said Schatzlein.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers set Feb. 13 as the start date of the strike if they do not reach a settlement in contract negotiations. If the strike occurs, classes will be closed on Feb. 13 and 14. After that, the district will open seven Kid Space sites for students in grades K-5 only. If the strike continues into the following week, more safe sites would be added. For more information in case of a strike, the district has posted information here.

If the strike goes beyond four school days, there would need to days added at the end of the school year.