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Talks reach impasse in teachers strike; teachers union sues over replacements
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Both sides in the Crosby-Ironton teacher strike took legal positions Wednesday. The school board declared contract talks at an impasse, while the teachers union filed a lawsuit challenging the hiring of replacement teachers. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
After another failed negotiating session in the Crosby-Ironton teachers' strike, both sides made legal moves Wednesday. The school board declared the strike an impasse and teachers sued the district over what they call illegal tactics.

Crosby, Minn. — The actions made for a confusing day in a community that's already feeling a lot of pressure from the five-week-old labor disagreement. After 30 hours of negotiations over two days, both sides announced the talks had ended in the early morning hours on Wednesday morning. Soon after, the school board declared an impasse.

The teachers disagree with that move. They say only a state negotiator can make that determination. The state negotiator, jumping into the debate, says either side can declare an impasse.

At an afternoon news conference in Crosby, the striking teachers stood by their claim. But they were there to talk about more than the impasse.

"The teachers of Crosby-Ironton have been patient. They've been patient for the past five weeks," said Harley Ogata, the attorney for Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union.

"They've been patient while unqualified, unlicensed, and under-qualified replacement workers have been replacing them in the classroom," Ogata said.

So the teachers have filed suit against the school board. They say school officials have hired some replacement teachers who aren't licensed. Striking teachers also claim the school is paying replacements too much, twice as much as union teachers and three times as much as regular substitutes. According to the union, those are violations of labor law.

The chair of the school board found out about the lawsuit when he was served a summons, at work. Scott Kile says the lawsuit is just another move by striking teachers to push for a settlement. He denies accusations that the school board is acting unfairly.

"It's simply not true. This is just another union tactic to up the pressure on the school board, and to bury the district in paperwork," said Kile.

Kile says the board has the right to declare an impasse. To him, that means the board could change the teachers' contracts without further negotiations. He says that's a serious move, and something the board hasn't yet discussed.

Labor experts say the school board can declare an impasse. But it's up to a circuit court to ultimately decide the issue, and that can be hard to prove.

Bart Finzel, economics and management professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, says the latest moves at Crosby-Ironton have put the strike into an even more contentious area. As a result of the moves, he expects the strike to drag on much longer, now that the courts are involved.

But Finzel says the strike will have to be settled someday, thanks to a law unique to Minnesota. "In Minnesota, you can't permanently replace teachers during a strike," he explains. "And that ultimately means that the school board will have to resolve this, and the teachers will ultimately come to some resolution, because they will get their jobs back at some time."

For now, the striking teachers will wait for a judge's ruling on their lawsuit. School board members say they won't make any decisions on what to do next until their regular meeting early next week.

In the meantime, the school will continue to hire replacement teachers. Junior and senior students went back to class on Wednesday. Kindergarten through fourth grade classes have slowly returned during the past few weeks. And fifth graders are expected back in class in a few days.