By STEVE KARNOWSKI and AMY FORLITI – Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minneapolis public school teachers picketed Tuesday demanding better wages and “safe and stable schools” as parents face an insecurity that has become all too well known during the coronavirus pandemic.
Union leaders and school officials made it clear that the sides are far apart on issues that include class size caps and more mental health services for students. For many families of the 29,000 students in one of Minnesota’s largest school districts, a prolonged strike by 3,300 teachers could mean a return to struggles to balance work and childcare.
“We all have real jobs,” said Molly Dengler, whose son is in the first grade at a Spanish elementary school in downtown Minneapolis. “Maybe they could quit out of work today, but it’s not sustainable to keep having to quit.”
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Dengler, co-president of the parent-teacher association at her son’s school, said the PTA uses WhatsApp to inform parents, connect them with childcare and help them organize study groups.
The average annual salary for Minneapolis teachers is more than $71,000. The union says it’s joining the lower-paying counties in Minneapolis-St. Paul area. A key union demand is a starting salary of $35,000 for education support professionals, compared to the current $24,000 that union officials say is essential to hiring and retaining people of color.
“We’re striking for safe and stable schools, we’re striking for systemic change, we’re striking for our students, the future of our city and the future of Minneapolis public schools,” says Greta Callahan, president of teachers,” the Minneapolis Federation chapter said of Teachers outside a middle school where more than 100 union members and supporters picketed in freezing weather.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said students and parents across the county have relied on school nurses, support staff and educators to help create “as normal a situation as possible” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“How do you attract black and brown teachers if you don’t pay a living wage?” said Weingarten.
But principal Ed Graff named a budget deficit of $26 million for next year, which would total $97 million excluding one-time federal funding. He said the teachers’ proposals would cost around $166 million annually, which is above the current estimated budget.
“We have all these priorities that we want to achieve. And we don’t have the resources. And someone has to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this,'” Graff said.
The district says it has lost 3,000 students during the pandemic, prompting a reduction in state aid.
According to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, districts in the Twin Cities area face a combined shortfall of more than $230 million for the 2022-23 school year. It cited the cost of special education and English-learning programs and the failure of government funding to keep up with inflation.
In the St. Paul district, which has about 34,000 students, teachers and administrators reached a tentative agreement late Monday to avert a strike. The teachers union said the agreement would increase salaries, maintain class size caps and increase support for mental health.
The Minneapolis Borough advised parents to arrange childcare and said prepackaged breakfasts and lunches could be picked up at schools.
Suzanna and Bryan Altman plan to enroll their third-grade daughter, Annette, in a day camp that offers classes and activities in science and technology. The Altmans, who both work in the tech industry, survived the distant school days of Annette’s freshman and sophomore years by working from home and starting a mini-pod with another family. They consider themselves fortunate to have “many resources at their disposal,” including willing grandmothers.
Mark Spurlin, who has 6-year-old twins in kindergarten at the same Spanish immersion school as Dengler, said getting through an indefinite strike could be challenging. Day care would cost him and his wife Megan about $50 to $60 per day per cub.
“I could take unpaid leave to stay home with the boys, but that would be difficult,” said Spurlin, a teacher at a suburban high school who was at home during the strike as COVID-19 began.
Spurlin, who is black, said his first teaching job was in the Minneapolis County, but he was fired a few years ago due to budget cuts. He said the district needs to figure out how to retain color teachers while dealing with current seniority rules that affect them disproportionately.
“Minneapolis has a problem. And Minneapolis public schools have a problem. And if they have to go on strike to deal with them, I totally understand that,” Spurlin said. “But we’re also just a small family unit that’s just — we want to support, we’re there — but we also have to do a lot of things to make it work.”
Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correct the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers teachers’ union president’s last name to Callahan instead of Cunningham and to note that the union’s press conference was held outside of a middle school instead of an elementary school.
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