See more of the story

A St. Paul Public Schools official said Tuesday that the district would like to pursue binding arbitration with its teachers in an effort to settle a new two-year contract without the disruption of a strike.

A letter proposing the move was to be sent to leaders with the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) by day's end Tuesday, said Patricia Pratt-Cook, the district's executive chief of human resources.

But the district needs buy-in from the union, and while it has used arbitration previously in negotiations with principals, the approach has not been tested with the SPFE. In a statement Tuesday, SPFE President Leah VanDassor said that the union prefers to continue working with a mediator.

"We look forward to our next mediation session this Friday and getting a response to our latest financial offer," VanDassor said. Wages and benefits have proved to be a major sticking point in the talks, the two sides say, and the union revised its offer during a mediation session last week.

In promoting arbitration, Pratt-Cook pointed to the toll on students and the broader community — noting the district provides not just schooling, but also child care and early childhood education.

Employees, too, "will want to continue to keep working, getting paid, doing their jobs without fear of layoffs or missing paychecks," she said at a news conference alongside other district leaders. They spoke a day after the union filed an intent to strike notice for a walkout that would begin March 11.

Superintendent Joe Gothard, who on Monday was named the new schools chief in Madison, Wis., told reporters that while he was "excited about that opportunity," his primary responsibility was to ensure a St. Paul contract is settled without a strike, and that the district is positioned for the future. A timeline has not been set for his departure, and he declined on Tuesday to reflect on his time in St. Paul.

"Know that we are going to hit the ground running Friday and we're going to settle this contract," Gothard said.