St. Louis teachers authorize strike; no walk-out date set

Friday, December 17, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis teachers voted to authorize a strike against the state's largest school district, the teachers union said Thursday.

Teachers also voted 1,574 to 110 to reject the district's latest contract offer.

The strike authorization vote was 1,427 to 225, just seven votes more than needed. Two-thirds of the local's 2,130 members, or 1,420 people, had to authorize the strike for the proposal to pass. No walk-out date has been set. Teachers cast their ballots Wednesday but the vote count was not released until Thursday.

"Striking is not something we would go into lightly," Mary Armstrong, president of Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers, said. "We know ramifications from the district are great.

"We are willing to negotiate 24-7 if need-be over the holiday break."

She said the union's negotiation committee will meet today to identify the top concerns the district must address before they'll sign a contract. They're likely to be salary, benefits, personal time off, sick days and bereavement leave last year to help the district cut costs, but they would like them resumed. Armstrong also said budget constraints cut counselor and social worker positions and closed alternative schools, all of which are needed to enforce discipline and provide a good learning environment.

She said teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries are working without adequate supplies and textbooks, in overcrowded conditions and among disruptive students.

"We're tired, morale is low and we feel disrespected by this administration," she said.

The school district said children will be educated, even if a strike moves forward, noting that it has 700 substitute teachers on reserve and could hire more. "School is going to continue," said interim superintendent Pamela Hughes said.

The district's 3,450 teachers have worked without a contract since July. The district serves 32,000 students.

Missouri law doesn't allow public school teachers to strike, but remedies are not so clear cut, Saint Louis University management professor David Kaplan said.

He said the district could discipline teachers internally, or, it could seek a court injunction, a cease-and-desist order, or monetary damages.

If the teachers would continue to strike, the district could sue the union for violating the court order and ask the court to enforce the order through arrests, he said.

The district Web site notes the board could fire teachers for striking.

The school board on Dec. 1 approved a deal that raises teacher salaries over a four-year period but also increases the number of days and hours they must work.

The district offer was aimed at bringing salaries for city teachers in line with those at five affluent suburban school systems. It is expected to cost the district $22 million over four years.

Armstrong said the proposed pay raises will not put St. Louis teachers on par with counterparts in wealthier districts. For instance, a high school science teacher with a master's degree and 30 years experience with 10 years of service in St. Louis public schools now earns $41,700, and under the district's proposal, would earn $44,943. A teacher at Rockwood School District, in St. Louis County, with comparable experience and education, earns $50,000, the union said, citing figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Some paraprofessionals, such as teacher's aides, scheduled to receive a $500 raise will pay at least that much more in health care benefits, she said.

In addition to the potential strike, the district has been beset by other problems, including infighting among board members and continuing debt. The district is millions of dollars in debt even though a New York-based turnaround firm ran it for a year, a term that ended June 30.

Teachers have struck in St. Louis before. They walked off for 28 days in 1973, 56 days in 1979 and four days in 1983. In each case, courts ordered teachers back to the classroom.

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