In the Spotlight

News & Features
A Simmering Feud
By Laura McCallum
March 21, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001

Gov. Jesse Ventura says he's strongly considering asking the Legislature to change state law to bar teachers from striking. The proposal is the latest issue pitting Ventura against the state's teachers union, which called the idea a "red herring to divert attention from Ventura's education budget."

AT AN EDUCATION FORUM in St. Louis Park, the governor floated the idea to reclassify teachers as "essential state employees." That would put them in the same category as police officers and firefighters, who must go to binding arbitration when contract talks break down.

Ventura says the Minnesota Constitution requires the state to provide public education, and the threat of teacher strikes jeopardizes children's right to get an education. Ventura says schools districts "don't have the spine" to get tough with teachers during contract talks, leading to contracts beyond their means.

"If they know, hypothetically, they're only getting a 9.5-percent increase, and then they collectively bargain 11.5 percent, and then they do this twist, and point the finger back at us - at state government - and say the problem is, the governor and his budget," Ventura told the forum.

Teachers union leaders reacted angrily to Ventura's idea. "It's a threat," said Sandra Peterson, vice president of Education Minnesota. She says there's no need to end teachers' right to strike.

"The collective-bargaining process has been sound in the state, it's worked well, we ought to continue it," she said.

Union leaders say teacher strikes rarely occur; the last one was in 1992 in Spring Lake Park. They say Ventura is trying to divert attention from his budget, which they've described as "stingy" for its modest increase for K-12 education. Parents, teachers and students have been protesting the governor's budget for weeks, and warning of teacher layoffs and program cuts if lawmakers agree with Ventura's recommendations. But Ventura says the pleas for more money haven't changed his mind.

"I'm not fully convinced. I'm very pleased that it's on the table. I feel I've already won. I've never made a decision based upon what I need to do to get re-elected," the governor said.

Ventura has said he's the only politician who can take on the education lobby, because he doesn't accept special-interest money. He has described education as a "dark hole," and questioned whether any amount of money would satisfy districts.

Lawmakers gave schools an additional $1.3 billion over the last two years. The governor says he's proposed a 4.4-percent increase in K-12 funding over the next two years, although union officials dispute that figure. Ventura is also backing a bill opposed by the teachers union that would prohibit school boards from approving teacher contracts that exceed anticipated revenues.

The bill's House author is Republican Mark Buesgens of Jordan, an assistant principal. Buesgens says too many districts assume state education funding will increase every year.

"Of course, it probably will, it always has, that's the history, but to assume that, then leaves this roller coaster of up and downs, and every two years, talking about cuts and increased class sizes and teacher layoffs that I think we need to get over," Buesgens says.

Buesgens' bill was approved by the House Education Committee on a party-line vote this week, but its prospects are uncertain in the DFL-controlled Senate. The chances for the governor's latest idea to reclassify teachers are even more uncertain. Lawmakers' reaction ranged from instant dismissal to mild interest.

Ventura's predecessor, Republican Arne Carlson, pushed the same idea, but he says it met with fierce opposition.

"I think Gov. Ventura, to his credit, is raising some very valid questions about collective bargaining and financial accountability. I think they are questions that the Legislature should wrestle with," Carlson said.

It's unclear whether the Legislature will wrestle with the essential-employee idea this session. While Ventura says he's likely to push the issue, a bill hasn't been drafted, and no sponsors have been identified.