Nearly 300 Eden Prairie Schools teachers and support staff rallied outside the district’s Administrative Services Center (ASC) on Monday night to advocate for more favorable terms in their still-unsettled employment contract.
The teachers lined the ASC’s sidewalks and parking lot in the hour preceding the 6 p.m. monthly school board business meeting. They held signs, cheered and waved at passing cars, and chanted slogans, including, “Education is a right; this is why we have to fight.”
EP Schools teachers have been working on an expired contract since July 1, 2023. However, as of Jan. 25, Eden Prairie Schools and the Eden Prairie Education Association (EPEA), which negotiates contracts for the district’s teachers and licensed staff, had still not settled the 2023-25 contract despite months of negotiations.
One teacher said she was at the rally to advocate for “a robust employment contract that ensures better working conditions and teacher safety.” Other teachers said they were there “for the teachers and for the kids” and “to stand up for our right to be treated well and to work in a safe and respectful environment.”
Shortly before the meeting began, teachers entered the boardroom and hand-delivered approximately 500-plus postcards to the six board members in attendance. (Board member Debjyoti “DD” Dwivedy was absent.) The postcards contained messages of support for teachers from community members.
Once the board meeting began, the teachers who were outside moved from the parking lot to the other side of the building, positioning themselves underneath the boardroom windows. Although the blinds were drawn in the room, cheers and chanting could be heard from the teachers, who were listening to the meeting on a loudspeaker.
Elizabeth Anderson Schmidt, one of the owners of Fat Pants Brewing Co., was on-site offering hot chocolate and hot apple cider to teachers who were standing in the cold. “EP Schools absolutely would not exist without our teachers, so to be able to do something nice for them when they need it most means a lot to us,” Schmidt said. “We’re happy to give them a small treat on a chilly night.”
Dominic Kirkpatrick, EPEA’s president, said on Jan. 24, “EPEA wants to express our heartfelt gratitude to the community who came out Monday evening to show their support for EP educators through their time, their words and their presence. We feel the love and respect of the community we serve, and we are committed to continue standing with you for the learning conditions all students deserve.”
School board statement regarding contract negotiations
The board meeting started on time at 6 p.m. Following standard opening procedures and two Spotlight on Success presentations, public comment began.
However, before the 16 people who signed up to give public comment were called to speak, EP School Board Chair Aaron Casper read prepared remarks. Although the board does not generally respond to public comment, he wanted “to ground our time tonight in our common values and our appreciation for our educators.”
Casper said the board “shares our community’s care and concern for our teachers and licensed staff … we believe our educators deserve a competitive and responsible contract that empowers them to fulfill our district mission of inspiring each student every day.”
He said the board acknowledged the EPEA’s concerns beyond pay and benefits, namely, workload, safety and staff retention.
“These are important topics because everyone deserves to feel safe and supported at work — just as our students deserve to feel safe and supported in school,” he said. “While we are proud of the work our district has done to foster and support safe learning environments while balancing the pressure placed on staff, we also know there’s always more work to do.”
Casper said it was important for district leaders to work closely with EP Schools staff, students, and families “to identify the root causes of workload and safety concerns, develop proactive strategies that promote safety and well-being at work, and determine the best ways to repair harm when caused. We know these harms, when they happen, aren’t solely fixed by compensation. They need, and deserve, collaborative solutions that make meaningful change.”
He said, “Even though many of those conversations will happen outside of negotiations, I hope you hear our commitment to work together to foster care, well-being, and safety throughout our district. It’s in the district’s Strategic Plan, and it matters to all of us.”
Casper said that both the board and superintendent were committed to settling a contract by Jan. 31. (Casper’s full statement can be heard at the 00:45.37 mark on the meeting video.)
Public comments focused on teacher working conditions and contracts
Next, community members gave public comments, which are limited to three minutes and must follow certain guidelines. All of the comments may be viewed in the full Jan. 22 board meeting video available on the district’s website. (Public comment begins at the 00:49 mark.)
The first two comments were from parents of Oak Point Elementary School students, who addressed an incident on Dec. 19, in which a non-secured, unmonitored Zoom session — intended to celebrate a school award — was breached by unknown users who posted threats and pornography.
The other 14 comments were given by EP Schools teachers, community members, and one Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) student. All of these comments were in support of the district’s teachers.
Topics addressed included teacher prep time, class sizes, compensation, and safety, as well as how these factors affected teacher retention and quality of education in the district. Many comments called for the district to make changes in the new contract to protect teachers and, ultimately, improve the district’s overall educational experience.
Prep time and class sizes. Bart Reed, a 30-year resident of Eden Prairie, spoke about the “transformational impact” of Eden Prairie’s teachers and counselors on his children, who attended EP Schools. He said he was “surprised” and “alarmed” by current reports of insufficient teacher prep time and by exceeded class size targets. He said teachers he has communicated with felt undervalued, unheard, and unsupported by the administration.
Lauren Seashore, an Eden Prairie resident and second grade teacher at Eden Lake Elementary, said that she and fellow teachers worked “way beyond” the 45 minutes of paid prep time that the district allocated them per day, partly due to having too many students and too large a caseload.
To address each student’s unique needs, problem solve, grade, prepare engaging lessons, collaborate with colleagues, communicate with families, and more, Seashore said, “Teachers need adequate paid prep time.”
Josh Axtman, who is in his 13th year as an EPHS English teacher, said that overly large class sizes impeded his and other teachers’ ability to deliver a quality education to students. He talked about how having 36 students in a recent class was too many to create meaningful connections with all of them and noted that his average class size was 34 students.
“Our students are living in a hard world, and their needs are greater than ever,” he said, adding that teachers cannot sufficiently meet student needs when classes are overloaded.
Axtman asked the district to adhere to board-approved class sizes, which he said are not currently being observed.
“We are asking for contract language that reflects the commitments the district has already made so we can meet the needs of our students,” he said.
Compensation and retention. Other comments called for teachers’ compensation packages to be made more competitive. One commenter also asked the district not to misrepresent teachers to the public concerning contract negotiations.
Mike Latterner, a parent of two Prairie View Elementary students, said he reviewed salary data on the Minnesota Department of Education website. He found that while the district’s administrator salaries for 2020-21 ranked in the top three of all districts in the state, its teachers’ salaries were only 23rd.
Dan Sparkman, a special education teacher in the district’s TASSEL program and an Eden Prairie resident, said teachers felt the administration was working against them in negotiations.
He said teachers believed the district was trying to portray the teachers’ union as “villains” and “greedy” to the public for seeking higher pay and benefits in their contract. He described this as “belittling,” “demeaning,” and “embarrassing,” and called for the district to change its approach.
John Miller, an Eden Prairie resident and grandparent of two students who is also a professional expert on education systems, warned that EP Schools was likely to become “mediocre” if it did not look after its education professionals better.
“If you want good, great, or excellent, you need to change direction,” Miller said.
Commenters also said the district is likely to lose more teachers if it does not address the aforementioned issues.
Callea Pavelka, a licensed teacher with four children at Central Middle School, expressed deep concern about teacher retention. She noted that last school year, three of her four children had teachers go on leave mid-year.
Pavelka added that EPEA data indicated that about half of EP Schools teachers are planning to leave the district. She said that EP Schools teachers “are in high demand in other districts and other professions.” She shared negotiation advice with the district and advised them to repair damaged relationships with teachers.
Dana Severson, a parent of an EP Schools elementary student, said her family’s positive experience with the district is “100%” due to her child’s “passionate, excellent educators.” She said the district was “choosing the budget in a way that does not translate to a robust proposed contract” for teachers.
Severson cautioned that teachers might leave if they don’t feel valued and pointed out that families, due to ample open enrollment opportunities, might also depart for other districts.
Workplace safety. Many commenters discussed safety concerns in EP Schools.
Seashore, the second grade teacher at Eden Lake, called for addressing safety in the contract, noting that student misbehavior can sometimes pose a safety concern. “I myself have had incidents like that,” she said, worrying about the impact on students and teachers.
TASSEL educator Sparkman talked about the need for security officers and “common sense security protocol” to be added at TASSEL, amid what he described as an untenable situation where the district was “rolling the dice” on the safety and security of special education teachers and students.
Sparkman said that currently, teachers are responsible for providing security, and that the district had a “responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment.” He also asked for a mental health professional to be added at TASSEL to help students with emotional challenges.
The final public comment was from an EPHS student who testified about safety issues and the unacceptable treatment of teachers he had seen at school.
Senior Levi Dicker began by saying he was “here today in support of our educators,” noting that the high school’s “incredible team of teachers” had influenced and supported him significantly since he moved to the district as a sophomore.
Dicker expressed disappointment that “these same teachers were receiving pushback” from the district in their contract negotiations.
From a safety standpoint, Dicker believed teacher working conditions were untenable.
“Daily, I witness staff members getting emotionally abused by other students,” he said. “There are many students that swear at their teachers, call them vulgar names, yell at them, along with many other acts of defiance and hostility.”
Dicker said he has also seen staff being physically abused. “Last week, I saw another student push a teacher into a doorframe because he was simply told he needed to stay in class,” he said.
He said the fact that teachers have said they do not feel safe at school is “unacceptable.” He added, “There needs to be significant change to end the behavior issues and violence that occur within the walls of our school.”
Dicker said it was “even more unacceptable” that the district was refusing the EPEA’s contract proposal to add up to five days of hazard leave if they need medical attention due to experiencing a violent incident while at work. “This is intolerable,” he said.
In addition to adding safety measures, Dicker also called on the district to address “rapidly increasing class sizes” and the fact that teachers “are not receiving the proper support to feel safe or valued in their work environment.”
Dicker urged the district to fix this by agreeing to “reasonable contract terms that will allow them to service the community properly.”
Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) will cover the remainder of the board meeting in a future article. This will include discussions about the 2024-25 calendar, the mid-year budget report, and financing of a potential property purchase at 11840 Valley View Road, Eden Prairie, for the TASSEL program.
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