ST. Paul, Minn. (WCCO) -- Minneapolis educators on strike took their demands to the state capitol on Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to spend some of a $9.25 billion projected budget surplus on mental health supports and wage increases for staff like food service workers, teacher aides and bus drivers.
"We are well aware we have nine billion reasons to keep doing what we're doing, and to be on that picket line tomorrow," said Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
Dozens gathered at the foot of the capitol holding signs with phrases like, "On strike for living wages" and "let's value people," on day two of the strike after failing to reach an agreement with the district, which serves more than 30,000 students. Callahan said both sides made no progress in ending the stalemate after going back to the negotiating table this morning.
Since the budget forecast estimated the record revenues, lawmakers have been jockeying over competing interests in how and where to spend the money. Even before the strike, DFL lawmakers had an eye on targeting education.
There are bills in the Minnesota House that address some of Minneapolis educators' demands, including a bill that would increase the starting wages for education support professionals from $15 to $25 an hour.
There's also legislation to increase teachers of color and a proposal to invest more in school psychologists, counselors and social workers as mental health needs of students have heightened during the pandemic.
In a recent presentation to a legislative committee, the Minnesota Department of Health said the waitlist for mental health treatment grew from 200 pre-pandemic to 800 students. The agency also noted that the counselor-to-student ratio in schools is one educator for every 792 kids.
That puts Minnesota 49th out of 50 states, said DFL Rep. Jim Davnie, who chairs the House education finance committee.
"We have the resources. We can't just say, 'we don't have the money, I'm sorry,'" Davnie said, citing the surplus. "We could reset school finances across the state this year if we choose."
Extended Video: Minneapolis Teachers Rally At The Capitol
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, which represents 90,000 educators across the state said Wednesday said the group supports Minneapolis teachers in their fight, and that their asks mirror those of other school staff elsewhere.
"All the things you're fighting for are the things that educators are asking for all over this state," she said. "Let's get the investments rolling into our public schools, the schools that our students deserve."
Any deal on additional education spending will need buy-in from Senate Republicans, whose focus is on student literacy. If the divided legislature ultimately does find agreement, it's likely months away near session's end.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who chairs the key education committee in that chamber, pointed to the funding schools have received from the state and federal pandemic aid in the last two years.
"Despite the funding increases already available to schools, students are still falling behind and many parents are choosing different education options for the kids. This will result in less funds to the schools that are losing students," he said in a statement. "We are focused on literacy as the cornerstone for a child's education this session. It is the most important thing we can do to get kids on the right track to a bright."
A spokeswoman for the Republican caucus later said that the Senate GOP would support "additional funding for literacy training and tools to get kids back on track."
Davnie said state education increases have not kept pace with inflation and noted that pandemic aid is just one-time money that doesn't fulfill ongoing needs.
"You can't hire someone to help this year's third graders on one-time money when they know that this year's third graders are going to be next year's fourth graders that still need the support," he said.
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