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Pace of teacher contract negotiations is at a crawl
By Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio
January 15, 2002
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The 2001 Legislature waived this year's Jan.15 deadline for reaching new teacher contracts and the financial penalty for missing it. So far, few Minnesota school districts have reported settlements. Union leaders say they're concerned the slow pace for negotiations, in some cases, could lead to the first teachers strikes in 10 years.

"I will say candidly that in some districts, conditions are ripe for a strike," says Judy Schaubach, president of the teachers union, Education Minnesota.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

Minnesota school districts have faced a Jan 15 contract deadline every two years since 1987. Districts that don't reach an agreement on time must pay a $25-per-pupil penalty. Legislators suspended the deadline for this round of bargaining when last year's K-12 funding wasn't decided until a summer special session.

Judy Schaubach, president of the statewide teachers' union Education Minnesota, says as a result 252 of the state's 341 school districts still do not have a contract for the current school year.

"Eliminating the deadline was a mistake, pure and simple. The Legislature has suspended the deadline two other times in recent years and both times the number of districts that had not settled by Jan. 15 shot way up," she said.

Schaubach says, typically, 95 percent or more of the school districts reach settlements on time when facing the deadline. She says Education Minnesota wants legislators to ensure negotiations get moving by imposing a special January 2003 deadline for the current contract cycle.

"At the pace teacher settlements are coming in, there's a real possibility that bargaining will drag on into the next school year. Right now, many teachers are feeling extremely frustrated by the lack of progress. I will say candidly that in some districts, conditions are ripe for a strike," she said.

On average, teacher contract settlements so far are slightly more restrained than the 1999-2001 cycle, according to the MSBA. Teachers are in line for average increases of about 9.4 percent in total compensation over the two years, compared to an increase of 10 percent in the previous contract period. See larger image.
(Source: Education Minnesota)

Schaubach won't say where labor trouble might be brewing this year. Minnesota's last teacher strike was in Spring Lake Park from December 1991 to January 1992.

An official with the Minnesota School Boards Association says districts should be able to reach settlements, if given enough time to negotiate. Associate Director Bob Lowe says school board negotiators have always felt the state-imposed deadline and financial penalty were unfair.

"There's no penalty as such placed on the bargaining units in that process, and it falls directly on and entirely on districts that are sometimes forced into making difficult decisions that are not in the best interests of the districts because they are coming up to that deadline and penalty," he said.

Lowe says factors other than the waived deadline have contributed to this year's slow contract pace. Many school districts didn't have a clear picture of their finances until local voters decided levy referendums in November.

The state deficit will likely mean more budget cuts for many districts. Schools are also adapting to strict new accounting rules that ensure districts can can actually afford their contract settlements.

Health insurance costs continue to be a big hurdle in negotiations, and one small school district has already stopped providing health benefits. Education Minnesota is pushing for an optional state health insurance plan for school employees.

"This health insurance cost, and then the fact that we've got increased class sizes," says Schaubach, who says the contract inadequacies will cost the state many good teachers. "The workload is getting greater and greater, and people are not going to stay in this profession if they can't make a competitive wage. There are other options. Even now with the layoffs that are going on, people are looking for other places to go."

Schaubach says among the 89 reported settlements, teachers will get an average salary increase of 2.5 percent this year and 2.6 percent next year. According to the union, Minnesota teachers rank 22nd in the nation this year, with an average salary of $40,577.

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