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Teachers and education support staff at Minneapolis and St. Paul schools may go on strike soon if they can't reach an agreement with their districts.

Educators have been negotiating their contracts with their respective districts for months, but progress has stalled over issues that include mental health support for students, limiting class sizes, paying support staff and hourly workers more, and retaining teachers of color, among other things. 

The districts have pushed back against the unions' demands, citing declining enrollment and lack of funding, among other things, according to the unions. So in an effort to get districts to take their demands seriously, the unions on Thursday voted to authorize strikes in their respective districts. 

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals (MFT) said 98% of support staff and 97% of teachers who cast a ballot voted to authorize a strike on Thursday (voter turnout was more than 90%). Meanwhile, the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) said nearly two-thirds of its members voted with 78% voting to authorize a strike. 

"We know this step is incredibly important because it sends a message to all of the people in our district, to the people at the Legislature, etc. that our members understand that our students need this support, and our district is looking to take these supports away," such as class size caps, mental health supports, and retaining educators, Leah VanDassor, president of SPFE, said during a virtual news conference on Friday.

Shaun Laden, MFT's education support professionals (ESPs) chapter president, said Friday the vote shows there is near-unanimous support for changing the status quo, and members sent a "clear message" that it's time to invest in hourly workers and support staff. 

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, a special education assistant with Minneapolis schools, said she believes union members voted so overwhelmingly to strike because educators are tired, their work isn't valued, and they know they can't continue to do the same thing and expect students to thrive when students don't have all the supports they need.

"We're not stable right now. We have a lot of open positions," Roberson-Moody said, noting students are the ones suffering the most from not having enough staff.

ESPs make about $24,000 in Minneapolis. The union would like to see that bumped up to $35,000, which should help fill some openings and keep others from leaving the profession. 

The unions say it's time to invest in educators and ESPs people want to see the high-quality public schools that students deserve. 

Read more [Jan. 21]: Educators in Minneapolis, St. Paul could strike amid contract negotiations

The demands Twin Cities educators are making mirror what many public school teachers and staff across the country have been seeking for years, which have been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What's next?

This week's strike authorization votes do not immediately trigger a strike, and one would not happen for at least 10 days. 

That's because union leaders still have to formally notify their respective districts if they plan to strike (this will likely happen next week), and then state law requires a cooling-off period of 10 days before a strike can begin. This is designed to give both sides a bit more time to come to an agreement before workers walk off the job.

Both unions say they have mediation scheduled with their districts in the coming days where they will negotiate their contacts and hopefully settle without having to strike.

The unions say they're willing do to whatever it takes for students, but stress that a strike doesn't have to happen. Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of MFT, said Friday she hopes parents who are concerned about schools closing and kids not having a safe place to go will write to the school board, which has "full authority to make a lot of these decisions."

She called the strike a "last resort," and hopes district leaders will "do the right thing for our kids because all of this can be avoided."

VanDassor said in the last several years, until the union starts talking about having a strike, district leaders "won't come to the table and do this work."

"We have to get to this point before anybody starts to take anything we say seriously," she added. "That pattern is getting a little tiresome and we'd like to be able to finish this up without having to go out on strike but we know the work that needs to be done is very important and the ball is really in the court right now of both of this administrations to do the right thing and not lead the families into that kind of a situation."

Educators have started a strike fund in the event they do go on strike.

District officials react

The St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education said it supports educators' right to authorize a strike and "recognize there are clear differences between the district and SPFE at the bargaining table but we believe these differences can be bridged" and the board encourages both sides to continue negotiating in good faith.

"Now more than ever, our community needs to come together and support each other. I promise to remain open, honest, and committed to finding solutions that meet the needs of our students while being true to our financial realities," St. Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement.

Bring Me The News has reached out to Minneapolis Public Schools for comment. 

MPS Superintendent Ed Graff did send a letter out to parents on Monday warning that a strike would mean classes would be canceled, and potentially would have to be made up in the summer, per KARE 11.

The MFT disagrees with this however, saying there's "no law saying that students have to make up those days if we are out on strike."

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