Minnesota school district teacher contract negotiations moving slowly
ST. PAUL - Teacher contracts across Minnesota are being settled at a much slower pace than they were two years ago. About 55 percent of school districts didn't have new two-year agreements in place as of Wednesday. That's up from 5 percent, or ju...
ST. PAUL - Teacher contracts across Minnesota are being settled at a much slower pace than they were two years ago.
About 55 percent of school districts didn't have new two-year agreements in place as of Wednesday.
That's up from 5 percent, or just 18 unsettled contracts, at the same time two years ago, when a state-imposed Jan. 15 deadline carried fines for districts that didn't settle in time.
"That fact is troubling not only for teachers in those districts, but for the students and families they serve," said Tom Dooher, president of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota. "When contract negotiations drag on, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the community."
Union officials for years have argued that the deadline forces both sides to get contracts settled in a timely fashion. But school district leaders called the deadline unfair because it penalized only their side -- and potentially forced some districts to agree to contracts they normally would not have.
Legislators last session lifted the deadline, which fined districts $25 per student if they didn't have an agreement in place with their teachers. This is the first time the deadline hasn't been enforced since 2005.
Two years ago, Minneapolis was fined $800,000 for missing the Jan. 15 deadline. But Tom Madden, school board chairman at the time, said board members were willing to take the hit in hopes of nailing down a less expensive agreement with teachers.
At that time, the board and the district's
teachers union were about $15 million apart in negotiations.
"The deadline puts all the advantage on the side you're negotiating with. It's not an equal playing field," said Madden, who is no longer on the board. "The penalty doesn't come out of the teacher pool. It doesn't come out of the union pool. It comes out of the district's pocket."
Republicans in control of the House and Senate have no interest in restoring the deadline this session, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee.
"For the first time in many years, school boards weren't forced into approving contracts they were against," Garofalo said. "School districts don't need some arbitrary deadline. I think it's best that Tom Dooher and the Legislature butt out and let local school boards decide what's best."
Dooher said the claim that the deadline drives up contract costs is inaccurate.
Teachers' cost-of-living raises during this round of negotiations are averaging about 0.88 percent in the first year and 1.03 percent in the second year, according to Education Minnesota. That's just slightly higher than two years ago, when teacher raises were about 0.75 percent and 0.95 percent, respectively.
But those figures don't include seniority raises promised in years past and rising health insurance costs.
Local union leaders also argue that getting contracts done earlier improves the work atmosphere.
Jim Smola, president of Dakota County United Educators, said he was against the deadline when it was introduced more than 15 years ago, believing it was best to let the negotiating process play out on its own.
But he's changed his mind. In the years when the deadline has been in place, Smola said, he has noticed contract talks in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district became much more productive and positive. And the earlier the contract is settled, he said, the better morale is among staff.
"It's uplifting for teachers when it's done," Smola said. "When it gets prolonged, it affects the classroom eventually. It's personally demoralizing."
Distributed by MCT Information Services