St. Paul teachers not alone; 144 Minnesota schools still negotiating contracts
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, February 14, 2014 – St. Paul Public Schools is not the only Minnesota school district struggling to complete a new contract with its teachers union.
Eight months after most contracts expired, 144 of districts, or 44 percent, are still negotiating with their unions, according to Education Minnesota and the state school boards association.
About 56 percent, or 187 districts, have signed new contracts and those agreements include an average teacher’s pay raise of 1.7 percent in the first year and 2.1 percent in the second.
Those raises do not include pay increases teachers typically get for increased experience or education.
The length of time it is taking many districts to settle contracts has union leaders again arguing that a negotiation deadline is needed.
“It’s just like homework: If there isn’t a goal, we are not going to get our work done,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.
But school leaders argue that the extra time often leads to fair and more affordable settlements.
“We think you get a fairer settlement when a deadline isn’t hanging over your shoulders,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director, of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Under a state-imposed deadline, district and union leaders previously had until Jan. 15 to complete negotiations or face fiscal penalties. In 2011, the Legislature did away with the deadline.
In 2009, the last contract cycle with the deadline still in place, 10 percent of contracts were unsettled by Jan. 15. In the two negotiation periods since, more than half of districts were still negotiating in mid-January.
School officials argued that the financial penalties gave unions an unfair advantage at the bargaining table.
“Any time you have a financial penalty involved, you will get more settlements by the deadline. That doesn’t mean they’re good settlements,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
“If it takes time to get a good contract, so be it. The higher priority is to be sure the contract is fair to all parties involved and sustainable.”
Three of Minnesota’s four largest districts — Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis and St. Paul — are still negotiating with teachers.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, the state’s fourth-largest district, reached agreement last fall before voters approved a $10 million levy increase.
Negotiations in Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul have been heated. St. Paul teachers are expected to take a strike authorization vote this month, and Anoka-Hennepin teachers have limited the amount of work they do outside of the traditional school day.
Croonquist said that in some cases, such as St. Paul, union leaders have brought to the bargaining table such issues as staffing levels and class sizes that historically were outside the scope of labor agreements.
“Those are management issues,” he said. “They need to have flexibility and cannot get locked into situations with agreements that don’t allow you to respond to changing economic circumstances.”
But Specht, the state union president, said growing evidence shows that those issues play an important role in academic achievement.
“Educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” Specht said. “We do need to be talking about student learning everywhere we can.”
Schneidawind said he doesn’t believe there are widespread contract stalemates over class sizes, staffing levels and similar issues. But like Croonquist, he doesn’t think school board members should give up their control of certain issues.
“We always contend the board has the inherent right to make selection and direction of staff,” he said.
Reinstating a deadline for negotiations isn’t on the legislative agenda of either Education Minnesota or school district advocates, but both side say they’re willing to explore other options that would bring quicker contract resolutions.
However, the two sides would likely start from positions far apart. Union leaders don’t support things like mandatory mediation or binding arbitration that district advocates favor to resolve stuck negotiations.
Julie Blaha, president of Anoka-Hennepin’s teachers union, said timetables have been useful in other negotiations between the union and district, such as when they joined the state’s Quality Compensation teacher bonus plan or were creating teacher evaluation systems.
“I think we need to take a hard look at how we help districts come to conclusions,” Blaha said. “I’m not saying that our school district doesn’t want to get this done. It’s a different sense of urgency than for teachers who feel it every day.”