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St. Paul Public Schools and the union representing its teachers and other educators agreed Friday to seek a state mediator's help to negotiate a new contract.

The district said in a statement that it was acting in good faith to reach a deal but stressed that any agreement must be "financially sound."

Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said in a news release that the union was pursuing a contract that values the work of its members and "ensures we have the schools our community deserves."

The year-end move to mediation has become a common occurrence in recent bargaining cycles involving Minnesota's second-largest school district and its teachers.

In March 2022, the two sides narrowly averted a strike — two years after a walkout that was cut short by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year's talks come as the district projects a $150 million hole in its general fund budget as federal pandemic relief aid runs out in September 2024.

The union's priorities include adding staff to the district's mental health teams, increasing compensation to recruit and retain educators and other staff members, and reducing caseloads for educators who work with special-education students.

In November, Patricia Pratt-Cook, the district's executive chief of human resources, wrote in an update to staff members that the district budgeted $12.4 million for a new contract and that 23 of the union's 46 proposals would cost an estimated $106.4 million.

"We simply cannot afford to spend money that we don't have, no matter how much we agree on what our students and staff need," she said.