Monday, September 16, 2019


School strike forces parents to find new ways to keep their kids busy
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The halls are empty at Crosby-Ironton High School. The schools 86 teachers are on strike over a contract they say unfairly cuts retiree health benefits. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Striking teachers in the Crosby-Ironton school district say they've walked off the job mainly to preserve health benefits for retired teachers. School officials say those benefits cost too much, and need to be ramped down in coming years. In the meantime, parents in the district are trying to keep their children busy while school is shut down.

Crosby, Minn. — On a typical day, the halls of Crosby-Ironton High School are packed with students. All 700 junior high and high schoolers change classes at the same time. Superintendent Linda Lowrie says the activity sends an echoing clamor through the halls of this 1915 school.

"It's a fun noisy, time. They're greeting each other, saying hello and catching up on what's going on in class," Lowrie says.

Lowrie is one of the few people spending time in the school now, since the district's 86 teachers went on strike. They say the school's latest contract offer unfairly cuts health care benefits for retired teachers. Lowrie says the district is sticking by its latest offer, which gives the teachers a 2.2 percent raise over two years. It also decreases health benefits for future retirees. Lowrie says the administration has support from the community.

But the same claim of community support is coming from outside the school, where Doug Mayfield walks with a picket sign resting on his shoulder.

"Things are going very well on the lines. Everybody is still waving, lots of thumbs up, and we continue to be encouraged," says Mayfield. "It's much more positive than we thought. There's lots of people bringing us food and coffee, so we're pretty upbeat."

Mayfield has taught English at Crosby-Ironton High School for 31 years, and he's also the lead negotiator for the teachers. He says they don't buy the school district's claim that paying for retired teachers' health benefits will sink the system. That belief is what keeps the teachers out here.

While both sides stand their ground, everyday schedules for students and parents have been altered. Life's a bit different for Theresa Sullivan and her two sons. Sullivan is an administrator at Crosby's hospital. During the strike her kids are on their own.

"I've got a junior in high school and I've got a third-grader. My junior in high school is old enough to watch his younger brother, so he is basically with him throughout the day," Sullivan says.

Many parents with younger children in school don't have that support system at home. So Crosby's Hallett Community Center has opened its doors for students during the strike. A few students are on the ice rink playing hockey. At the other end of the building, in the pool, a dozen or so kids bob around trying to avoid the afternoon lap pool regulars.

Andy Forbort is running a program here at the community center to keep kids busy during the strike. The 24-year- old University of North Dakota senior has plenty of time on his hands. He was student-teaching in the Crosby-Ironton district before the strike started.

"I am going to play it by ear. If the strike goes on for another week, week and a half, I might be going to another school where I can complete my student teaching," Forbort says.

School officials say they're taking applications for replacement teachers now, but haven't decided if they'll try to start school with substitutes any time soon. The striking teachers say that's the worst thing the school could do. School administrators don't like the idea either. Both sides say it would make an already contentious situation even worse, and possibly keep everyone in limbo even longer.