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St. Paul schools chief surprised by teacher union's threat to strike

ST. PAUL -- St. Paul School Superintendent Valeria Silva said Wednesday that the district and teachers were making progress on school safety issues when she was caught by surprise this week by the union's threat to strike. In a letter Tuesday ann...

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Saint Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva spoke at a press conference in St. Paul on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

 

ST. PAUL -- St. Paul School Superintendent Valeria Silva said Wednesday that the district and teachers were making progress on school safety issues when she was caught by surprise this week by the union’s threat to strike.

In a letter Tuesday announcing that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers had filed for state mediation during contract talks with the district, union President Denise Rodriguez criticized Silva for failing to act in response to student violence in the schools.

Rodriguez specifically mentioned the lunchroom fight Friday at Central High School that left a teacher hospitalized with a concussion, and an administrator hurt.

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“We will not wait any longer for action by our district’s administrators,” Rodriguez wrote.

In her reply to Rodriguez, Silva wrote she was “saddened” to see the attack become a “talking point” in negotiations for the next teachers contract.

“It seemed to me that we were moving in the right direction, until today,” Silva said in a news conference Wednesday.

In union surveys one year ago, St. Paul teachers rated school climate and safety as their No. 1 concern.

When negotiations for the next two-year contract began in September, the union asked for a dedicated “restorative practice coach” for each school, along with an annual $100,000 per school for school-level teams to implement whatever restorative practices they see fit.

Silva said that plan would cost up to $11 million and she would rather create a committee of teachers and administrators to spend the 2016-17 school year developing solutions across the district.

“Restorative justice is an incredible program, but it is a concept and it needs to be adopted by the whole staff,” Silva said. “I believe that we have some schools that need more help than others.”

She noted the teachers also proposed pay increases that would raise the district’s salary costs by 9 percent over two years.

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Silva and the union agree that St. Paul schools must implement more restorative practices, which seek to get at the root of students’ behavior problems and welcome them back to the school community.

The practice is a shift away from such harsh punishments as suspensions and expulsions, although both sides agree there’s a place for that too.

Last month, Silva created a department of school climate and support. In a letter to staff, she said “we are not adding staff, but we are aligning resources we already have to use them more wisely and strategically.”

“I don’t want to wait until the contract is settled,” Silva said Wednesday. “I want to act now.”

Student behavior and the district’s response to it has been a recurring issue in St. Paul since fall 2013, when the sixth grade was moved from elementary to middle schools and most special-education students were placed in mainstream classrooms.

At the same time, the district stopped suspending students for defiant but nonviolent behavior.

Violent incidents in the schools have been fairly steady since that time, but students caught fighting are being suspended less often: down from 87 percent of the time in 2010-11 to from 66 percent to 71 percent in each of the past three years.

School board chairwoman Mary Doran wrote in a letter to Rodriguez that she, too, was caught off guard by the request for mediation.

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“Based on the progress of current negotiations, the board felt all sides were moving forward with regard to restorative practices in our schools,” Doran wrote.

Board member John Brodrick said the board has given some direction but has not been closely involved in contract talks. He said he attended Silva’s news conference in hopes of learning more about why the union was linking incidents of school violence to the contract talks.

Mary Vanderwert, who will become one of four new members on the school board next month, said she wants a comprehensive plan designed to prevent school violence.

She said the new board could play a more active role in contract talks.

“The relationship between the school district and the teachers is not good,” Vanderwert said.

This is the third consecutive negotiation cycle that St. Paul teachers have turned to a mediator after more than 20 years without doing so.

This year, teachers unions in 40 Minnesota school districts - about 12 percent - have filed mediation petitions with the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

The state used to impose financial penalties on districts that failed to agree on teacher contracts by Jan. 15, but the Legislature repealed that law in 2011.

Rodriguez this month is polling union members about their support for the restorative justice proposal and how far they’re willing to go to express that support: walk-ins, community rallies or a strike. She said they haven’t yet compiled the results.

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