Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody said she wants to stay at her job working at a Minneapolis high school, but the $24,000 salary leaves her struggling to make ends meet. She has to work other jobs, including as a companion for adults with disabilities, to provide for her two children.
“I have multiple jobs, and I still live paycheck to paycheck because my wages are insufficient,” said Roberson-Moody, a lead negotiator for the educational support professionals chapter of city's teacher union. “I’m fighting to stay at this job because I really, really love what I’m doing. But I just do not make enough money. I can make more money right now going to work at Target than I do working for Minneapolis Public Schools, and that is difficult.”
The city’s teachers union is currently demanding an increased starting salary of $35,000 for educational support professionals, or ESPs, like Roberson-Moody, who said an increase in wages for ESPs would also allow the city to attract and retain good candidates to work with students.
“When we don’t pay people livable wages, they leave, and the students are the ones that suffer,” she said.
Roberson-Moody joined her colleagues on the picket line Thursday as school was canceled for a third day in Minneapolis, where teachers are on strike and the union and school district have repeatedly failed to negotiate a deal that would return nearly 30,000 students to class.
Hundreds of teachers, support staff, parents and students marched and rallied in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday as the city's first teachers strike in more than 50 years wound on. The union is pushing for a 12 percent pay raise for teachers, a higher starting salary for education support professionals and smaller class sizes. The school district has said it cannot afford the demands.
“What do we want? Safe and stable schools! When do we want it? Now,” the crowd chanted, said Kate Percuoco, an early childhood educator and strike captain.
“It’s an opportunity to fight for the schools that our children deserve. I want these schools to be here for my kids,” said Percuoco, who has a child in kindergarten and another in the fourth grade in the district. “I want these schools to be strong and well staffed and well funded for every kid in Minneapolis. That’s why we’re in the streets.”
Competitive wages for Minneapolis educators are essential, Greta Callahan, president of the teacher chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said at a news conference Thursday morning ahead of ongoing negotiations.
“We are hemorrhaging families. We are hemorrhaging educators. Our students deserve more, and we expect more from those at the table inside this building,” she said. “They cannot continue to keep digging in their heels and doing it at the expense of our children.”
The Minneapolis strike comes as school districts across the nation are grappling with staffing shortages as the ongoing Covid pandemic causes resignations and retirements to mount.
As of January, 44 percent of schools reported having at least one teaching vacancy, and nearly half had at least one staff vacancy, according to data released last week by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. More than half of those vacancies were because of resignations, the data found.
Percuoco, who teaches children ages 1 through 5, said she has had an open position for an ESP the entire year because people will not apply.
“When we’re not staffed, it makes it really challenging to meet the needs in those classes,” she said.
The union has also called for the state to put some of its $9.25 billion budget surplus toward education. At least 2,000 educators and supporters rallied outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.
Shaun Laden, president of the chapter of education support professionals for the union, said that “$35,000 a year is a very modest proposal. Our members are told every single day, ‘We can’t do this without you.’ And yet we are paying folks poverty pay.”
As of Thursday, it appeared the two sides were still at an impasse in negotiations. Ed Graff, the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, has said while it shared the same goals as the union, the district cannot afford what it is demanding.
“We have all these priorities that we want to have happen, and we don’t have the resources for it,” Graff said at a news conference Tuesday.
In addition to the higher starting salary for support staff and the 12 percent raise for teachers, the union has called for teachers to receive a 5 percent raise in the second year, according to a summary of the negotiations on the school district's website.
Graff said the union's proposals would put the district $166 million over budget.
“We do our best in this district to make sure that we are fiscally responsible, good stewards of our money, making sure that when we have money that goes to support students, that it’s very direct. It’s in the classroom,” he said. “And every year, despite all of our attempts, we end up with a shortfall.”
Graff has said federal coronavirus relief funds have helped with budget deficits, but they are not enough to cover increases in wages.
“We know we need to pay our ESPs more,” Graff said Tuesday. “That is something we are committed to doing. We just need to make sure that we can do that in a way that keeps us financially sustaining this district.”
Union leaders and members said they were still hopeful about negotiations, which are scheduled to take place Friday and over the weekend.
Callahan said the union and school board “absolutely” share the same priorities.
“There’s no question there,” she said.
Percuoco said as the strike is ongoing, she believes “wholeheartedly in public schools and public education and the need to invest in our children.”
“Especially working with these babies, who is going to come to my class of 2-, 3- or 4-year-olds and say, ‘You’re not worth this?’ We have to do better,” she said.