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St. Paul teachers plan to vote Feb. 20 on whether to give leadership permission to call a strike.

The action comes two years after members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) were on the verge of a walkout. At that time, a deal was struck in the early-morning hours of the day of the strike.

This year, the two sides are still in mediation, but the union has been frustrated with the pace of talks. Executive board members voted unanimously on Monday to set the Feb. 20 vote and said they had overwhelming support from members via petitions.

"St. Paul educators came to the table with solutions that will improve the learning and working conditions for students and educators," SPFE President Nick Faber said in a news release. "Unfortunately, district leaders have been dragging their feet for months."

In a statement Tuesday, Superintendent Joe Gothard said the district was "extremely disappointed" in the union's action.

But, he said, "that will not deter our efforts to reach a fair settlement, one that puts the needs of students first, is fiscally responsible and is equitable with agreements we've reached with our other collective bargaining units."

For current bargaining, the district has said it has about $9.6 million in new money available over two years for the contract covering SPFE's 3,800 teachers, educational assistants and school and community service professionals. The $9.6 million represents a 1.5% budget increase in the first year and 2% in the second — a formula the district is using for all bargaining units.

Two years ago, the amount available to SPFE members was $4.5 million over two years.

SPFE argued in a recent website posting that the setting of new-money parameters was "arbitrary."

The union has cited as its top priority the establishment of mental health teams in every building. The teams would include social workers, counselors, psychologists, nurses and behavior intervention specialists.

The union also wants increased support for English language learners and appropriate caseloads for special-education professionals.

In December, when talks were about to enter mediation, Gothard said that the union's new proposals would cost more than $30 million — not counting wage and benefit increases. Teachers since have proposed salary increases of 3.4% and 2% over two years.

Since the last deal was reached, the district persuaded voters to back additional levy funding that this year was expected to bring in $17.3 million.

But the district continues to lose students. On Tuesday, the school board learned this year's budget will take a $4.4 million revenue hit because of declining enrollment.

The two sides will meet again in mediation on Feb. 19.

For a strike to occur, the union must give notice — pushing the start of any walkout to the first week of March at the earliest.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109