Minneapolis Public Schools has taken the position that the Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Specialists Local 59 is asking for more than the district can afford.
The staff on strike since March 8, 2022 don’t see things the same way.
“I think it’s a question of priorities,” said special education teacher David Zekpa. “Where your priority is, you’ll put money in.”
“The money is there already,” agreed Sharon Alton, a speech language pathologist at Justice Page Middle School and Washburn High School. “Historically, the district claims there is no money in contract years and – time and time again –a few months later they have a sudden pot of money. This has happened many contract cycles.”
This year, the state of Minnesota is projecting a $9.25 million budget surplus. “We also need the support of the legislation,” Alton added.
Right now, Minneapolis teachers can leave the district and make $10,000-$20,000 more in a neighboring district. The average pay in Minneapolis is $71,000 compared to $85,000 in St. Paul.
“I could be making $20,000 more in Minnetonka,” said Alton.
When Alton started in Minneapolis 24 years ago, MPS was number one for salary. “It’s dropped considerably,” noted Alton, a south Minneapolis resident whose children graduated from South High.
“We’ve got a problem with declining enrollment. We’ve got a greater problem with declining enrollment than Saint Paul, but I think that’s in large part related to the Comprehensive District Design (CDD). We need to put money in so we can attract students and improve things long run,” stated Alton.
Zekpa is a special education teacher at Justice Page Middle School, where he has taught for 17 years. As a teacher of color, he has watched many other teachers of color leave the district for better paying jobs elsewhere and because of how they are treated in Minneapolis Public Schools.
At Justice Page, the majority of students are students of color, while 5 of 60 teachers are.
“The teaching staff does not represent the students at all,” said Alton.
‘YOU CAN DO BETTER AT MCDONALD’S’
“One of the reasons I value union membership is that we’ve got protection,” said Alton. “We’ve got people who are looking out for everyone.”
“When we are united, we are strong,” remarked Zekpa. The last Minneapolis teacher strike was in 1970 and lasted for 14 days. All classes in Minneapolis were canceled beginning Tuesday, March 8, and remained through the Connector press time.
As a teacher, Alton is making a living wage although it isn’t competitive with other districts, she pointed out, but education support professionals (ESPs) are making only $24,000 a year.
“That salary makes is hard to fill positions,” said Alton. “There are hundreds of open positions in March. There are positions that have been open all year. That’s hard on kids. That’s hard on the people who are here. People are pushing to do the best by kids but there aren’t enough people to do right by our kids.”
Zekpa added, “You can do better at McDonald’s.”
He pointed out that due to the vacancies, “You end up doing the job of three people.”
“ESPs pay the same health insurance premiums as principals,” observed Alton. “So health insurance is a huge percentage of their gross pay relative to principals.”
For teachers, not having enough ESPs means that they spend less time teaching and more time on discipline issues. They don’t have enough help to complete required paperwork, make phone calls to parents, and give students individualized attention. ESPs also help with bilingual students.
The issues are compounded by staff shortages in every area of the school. For a couple weeks this winter, Justice Page had no deans for 1,100 students. The deans manage discipline issues at the school. They should have three, and now have one.
Mental health issues have gone up, especially in the last two years as the world has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. In his special education classroom, Zekpa observed his students regress, demonstrate resistance, and refuse to do any work.
“There have always been students who had mental health needs, but the numbers have increased dramatically,” said Alton.
The Minnesota Federation of Teachers and ESPs Local 59 is negotiating for increased mental health professionals in schools.
Justice Page has mental health staff, but it isn’t enough to manage all the needs, according to Alton. “Their schedule is full in September. There are not enough spots for students who have needs.”
She added, “Our social workers are filling in at the front office for lunch breaks. Our social workers are being pulled in a thousand directions, and that makes it so much harder to be responsive to student needs.”
Teachers have to do more than just education basics, observed Zekpa. “Teaching is not just pumping learning into the head of a child. It’s about having a holistic approach.”
“Anxiety is more of a health need but it absolutely impacts education. We can’t ignore it because students can’t ignore it,” said Alton.
They both hope to be back at work soon.
“The quality of schools make a huge difference in the quality of a city,” said Alton. “We want better. We can do better for Minneapolis and our kids."
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