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St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers union have entered into mediation over a new contract — the first since a three-day strike that was cut short by the pandemic.

The union wants smaller class sizes, increased mental health supports and back-to-back 2.5% raises. The district is fighting to hold down costs as enrollment tumbles.

In a message to staffers before the start of closed-door talks, district Human Resources Director Kenyatta McCarty said the school board set budget parameters for all contracts and the union was pitching proposals that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Last go around, the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) emerged in March 2020 with a deal that managed to exceed district budget parameters at that time but still found then-President Nick Faber disappointed that the union could not win even more hires as the pandemic lockdown loomed.

Since then, teachers in St. Paul and across the nation have battled through the disruptions of remote and in-person learning, and been forced to navigate the trauma suffered by students and families falling victim to COVID — while trying to stay safe and focused, too.

Districts have been left short-staffed and are struggling to find substitute teachers. Minneapolis teachers also are in mediation with their district, voicing concerns similar to those in St. Paul around issues of recruitment and retention, and working conditions.

Just before winter break, St. Paul staff members held "walk-in" events at schools across the district declaring supports were needed now more than ever.

Union President Leah VanDassor wrote to members: "Let's send a message to administration that their takeaway demands are unacceptable and a slap in the face to educators, students and families who braved the pandemic and come together to continue to build relationships, teach and learn."

SPFE again is employing a "bargaining for the common good" strategy that takes talks beyond wages and benefits to areas typically decided by management — moves like class-size caps and new support staff and other hires.

The district appears to have pushed back.

In her message to members on Dec. 15, VanDassor said district negotiators presented proposals "to eliminate our hard-fought class size cap language and our mental health protections," and went on to describe the moves as "cuts to our schools."

District spokesman Kevin Burns, asked this week for a copy of the district's proposals or a response to VanDassor's take on them, said officials were heeding state Bureau of Mediation Services protocols to keep proposals and other specific information confidential.

He provided a new message from McCarty to staff members reiterating that the union's demands "stretch beyond the district's authorized spending levels," but that the district would dedicate the time needed to reach a "timely contract settlement."

Parameters set by the school board seek to limit pay increases for all unions to 1.5% in each of the two years, or a total of $7.7 million for SPFE. McCarty said SPFE's wage proposal alone would cost more than $12.8 million.

According to the Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board, average pay for a St. Paul teacher in 2020-21 was $85,457, compared with $71,535 in the Minneapolis Public Schools and $81,779 in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

This month, St. Paul Public Schools and Teamsters Local No. 320 settled a new two-year deal for more than 700 teaching assistants. That contract calls for the 1.5% salary increases plus a one-time lump sum payment of $500 to employees on Dec. 17.

District contributions to employee health benefits were increased, as well.

School Board Member Chauntyll Allen, a former educational assistant at Como Park Senior High, said the agreement represented steps toward equity and a living wage.

"I want to thank the school district for valuing the paraprofessionals," she said. They now had the lift they needed, she said, to truly feel a part of the team at St. Paul Public Schools.

SPFE bargains not only for teachers, but also for educational assistants and school and community service professionals. The next mediation session for teachers will be Tuesday, followed by three meetings in January for the other groups.

In Minneapolis, the school district and three unions representing its teachers, bus drivers and clerical staff now are in mediation, as well.

Members of Teamsters Local No. 320, the union representing 100 Minneapolis school bus drivers and dispatchers, have voted to authorize a strike if their demands regarding pay and working conditions are not met.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers also is pushing for higher pay and improved working conditions, which teacher chapter President Greta Callahan said will help recruit and retain teachers amid crippling staffing shortages.

The federation plans to hold a march and rally in mid-January to continue calling on district leaders to settle the contract with educational support professionals working in the schools. The union is asking for $35,000 starting pay for those positions.

Pandemic-related concerns exacerbated tensions between the Minneapolis teachers union and the district. In January 2021, the teachers union took the rare move of filing an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board. The union received a temporary restraining order from the court, allowing school staff to work remotely if they had previous work-from-home accommodations.

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.