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Teacher strike divides community
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Inside the Deerwood Auditorium, the committee's chairman, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, told about 250 people they weren't there to take sides. Buesgens says lawmakers came to hear how the strike is affecting local residents. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Residents of the Crosby-Ironton school district say their communities are torn apart because of a month-long teacher strike. That's what a group of legislators heard when an education committee took its hearing on the road to the small town of Deerwood.

Deerwood, Minn. — Members of the House Education Policy Committee held a listening session Tuesday night, to hear how the strike is affecting parents, students and teachers. Teachers in the district walked off the job four weeks ago in a dispute over salaries and retiree health benefits.

The strong emotions surrounding the teacher strike in the Crosby-Ironton school district started to bubble over before the committee meeting even began. Outside the Deerwood Auditorium, striking teachers got into a shouting match with a man passing by the picket lines.

"Tell the school board to negotiate," said one of the striking teachers at a news conference before the legislative committee hearing started.

"No," screamed an older man to the group. "You got a fair settlement -- that's it. You got a fair settlement."

After a few minutes of yelling, and a few more minutes of tense conversation with the local cop, the man moved on. But the incident shows just how serious the disagreements have become in the Crosby-Ironton school district over the strike.

Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubauch was afraid a legislative hearing would make it worse. Schaubach says the strike is a local issue, and shouldn't involve state lawmakers.

"This hearing tonight is not going to solve the dispute here in the Crosby-Ironton school district," Schaubach said. "If anything, holding this highly politicized meeting here tonight will be counter-productive to the critical local efforts necessary to get this situation resolved."

Inside the Deerwood Auditorium, the committee's chairman, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, told about 250 people they weren't there to take sides. Buesgens says lawmakers came to hear how the strike is affecting local residents.

"That's fundamentally why we are here tonight," said Buesgens. "To listen and to learn about the issues that are faced by a community, by parents and by students when a school shuts down."

I want these two sides to come together and stop arguing, and act like adults.
- Angel Adams, Crosby-Ironton student

Buesgens says right now there's no role for lawmakers to play in the strike. They're not working on any proposal to end this strike or prevent future ones.

Parents who testified complained of children who want to go to school but can't. Several said if the strike continues they'll have to send their kids to neighboring districts to attend school. Almost 100 students have done just that -- left Crosby-Ironton to attend classes.

There were people in the crowd who wanted action from lawmakers. Some thought teachers shouldn't be allowed to strike during the school year. Others said schools shouldn't be allowed to hire replacement workers during a strike.

But most of the testimony focused on how people within the district are split.

Dwayne Smedsrud says the month-long strike has driven a wedge between people at the workplace, in churches and at home.

"The strike even divides families," Smedsrud said. "I know of an instance were two spouses are vehemently on opposite sides and hardly speaking to each other, and another instance where siblings who are teachers, are strongly divided on this issues. It sort of reminds me of the American Civil War."

A few students testified at Tuesday night's hearing. They complained of missed opportunities, like class trips that have been cancelled.

Senior Angel Adams says she blames both school administrators and teachers for the strike. She says it's time for both sides to end the dispute.

"I'm hoping for the best. I want these two sides to come together and stop arguing, and act like adults," Adams said. "Both sides say, 'We're doing this for the kids, the kids are the most important thing,' but I have not seen one ounce of that at all. I hope there's never a strike like this again, because it tears a community in half -- it really does."

School officials say they'll work with seniors to make sure they have the credits to graduate this spring. And in an effort to get more students back in the classroom, they continue to hire replacement teachers.

Several elementary classes are back in school, with more expected later this week. At this point, no new negotiations are planned to try to bring the strike to an end.

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