See more of the story

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said Thursday that he is optimistic that the district can reach a new deal with its teachers — and prevent a strike.

But in a nod to the high stakes involved, the district also detailed plans to assist families with the care of their children if a walkout occurs.

The announcement came a day after the St. Paul Federation of Teachers said that it will proceed with plans to strike Tuesday if a new contract is not settled during talks now expected to run through the weekend.

The union, too, is making plans to create “safe sites” for students in the event of a strike, and it plans to enlist union members as volunteers to work with the kids.

“Teachers and parents are naturally concerned about our most vulnerable students,” Nick Faber, the union’s president, said this week. “Many children rely on their schools for breakfast and lunch, so we want to be sure that they have warm and safe places to go if schools close.”

Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, said at a news conference Thursday that the district’s plans have been in the works for about a week and a half.

If the teachers strike, she said, students who are 18 and under would have access to breakfast, lunch and dinner at 13 district buildings beginning Tuesday. A food truck also would begin visiting high-density housing areas across the city that same day, she said.

If the walkout continued to Thursday, the district then would open seven sites at which students in grades kindergarten through five could receive breakfast and lunch, and engage in activities — not including course work.

Gothard said the seven sites would remain open throughout the strike. “Unfortunately,” however, he added, the district would be unable to accommodate students with “serious special education needs.”

The 13 buildings offering three meals would be open from 8:30 to 3 p.m., and operations at the seven sites serving grades K-5 would run from 8:30 to 4 p.m., Turner said.

Discovery Club, a fee-based program that now offers before- and after-school activities at four buildings, also would be open throughout the day from 8:30 to 4 p.m., she added.

Although all classes, including preschool and grades K-12, would be canceled beginning Tuesday, secondary students would be able to keep their iPads and access “standards-based academic activities,” the district said.

Varsity athletics also would continue throughout the strike.

Laurin Cathey, the district’s human resources director, said students could miss four days of classes due to the strike before the district would have to extend the school year into the summer.

At the bargaining table

Last fall, the district began to draw up contingency plans to serve its kids when cafeteria workers belonging to Teamsters Local 320 voted to authorize a strike.

Unlike the teachers, however, the Teamsters did not file a notice to strike before its contract was settled, Cathey said.

The starts of school board meetings have been raucous affairs of late, with union members lambasting board members for the size of their offers. In the case of the teachers, the district wants to limit the contract costs to about $2.07 million per year. The district has estimated the total cost of the union’s proposals at $159 million over two years.

In a news release Wednesday night, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers expressed frustration at the district’s reluctance to back proposals to reduce class sizes, increase support staff positions and expand new approaches to discipline referred to as “restorative practices.”

When asked Thursday what he would say to parents concerned about the district’s botched response to a snowstorm last month and to a strike threat now, Gothard said, “We’re a community,” and that communities come together in good times and bad, and when hardships arise.

As for progress at the bargaining table, Cathey said the district’s optimism was not overstated. Negotiators have offered the union a new class-size proposal that he said calls for a blend of class-size ranges and caps — the latter a goal of the federation. He said the proposal also had the potential to save the district money.

In his view, the talks have taken on a different tone in recent days, and when that happens, he said, “you start to see obstacles fall to the side.”

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109