Before a school strike, let’s be clear about some numbers

This article originally appeared in the Pioneer Press on Sunday, March 9, 2020.

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators has scheduled a strike for Tuesday over the lack of progress at the bargaining table between the teachers’ union and the Saint Paul Public Schools district (SPPS).

Included in the union’s 31 contract proposals is a demand for teacher salary increases over the two-year life of the collective bargaining agreement — a 3.4 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2019, and a 2 percent increase that would take effect July 1, 2020.

On the surface, these salary increases may seem reasonable, but a deeper dive into the numbers provides more clarity around the union’s demands. Pay increases are built into the salary schedule for the first 20-or-so years of a teacher’s career. The 3.4 percent and 2 percent increases would be on top of the salary increase formula already included in the existing union contract, commonly called the “step and lane” progression. Despite participating in countless media interviews leading up to the strike, the teachers’ union has neglected to mention these built-in increases that already exist.

Step and lane schedules remain the most common salary structure for teachers. The “steps” in a teacher salary schedule are the number of years a teacher has been teaching, and the “lanes” are the level of education the teacher has. Under union salary schedules, teachers earn automatic raises for each additional year of experience up to the top of the scale and can also earn more money by pursuing additional education credits and degrees.

If we look at the salary schedule for SPPS teachers, we see the salary increases are significantly higher than what the union is claiming they want. For example, a fifth-year St. Paul teacher with a bachelor’s degree earned $45,659 under the 2018-19 salary schedule. Applying the union’s proposed 3.4 percent increase and the automatic increase the teacher would earn as a sixth-year teacher, his or her new salary would be $48,870 — a 7 percent increase over the previous year. And for the year after that, the union wants the salary schedule to increase by 2 percent, which would result in the teacher example from above, now in his or her seventh year of teaching, receiving a salary increase of 5.2 percent over the previous year. That amounts to a 12.6 percent increase over two years. On average, St. Paul teachers are paid $75,199, second only to Edina in Minnesota.

Those increases are assuming the teacher does not pursue additional education. If, for example, the same teacher from above decides to enroll in the University of Minnesota’s online master’s program and earns 15 credits toward the degree, this teacher would see a salary increase of 15 percent over the union’s proposed two-year salary schedule.

The union’s wage increase proposal combined with its other 30 proposals would cost the Saint Paul Public Schools district more than $50 million in new annual spending. Keep in mind, the district is already facing a $10 million shortfall on an annual budget of about $794 million (which includes the $17.3 million in new funding from the local tax referendum St. Paul voters approved in 2018).

Teachers certainly have a right to ask the school district for higher wages and make their case to taxpayers, parents, and the school board. However, the way the union has framed its demands is misleading. St. Paul residents and taxpayers deserve transparency around the actual increases teachers will see on their paychecks if the union’s proposed contract is adopted. There’s only so much money to go around, and every new dollar spent on teacher salaries will have to come from somewhere.