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Pawlenty wants to prevent teacher strikes
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Teachers in the Crosby-Ironton school district were out on strike for eight weeks earlier this year. Gov. Pawlenty's latest budget offer seeks to prevent teachers from striking. (MPR file photo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to prevent Minnesota teachers from going out on strike during the school year. The governor included a strike ban as one of the conditions for his latest offer to increase funding for K-12 education, using a proposed cigarette fee. Critics say the plan is unacceptable, because it would significantly alter the collective bargaining process in school districts.

St. Paul, Minn. — A teacher strike earlier this year in the Crosby-Ironton school district kept students out of their classrooms for eight weeks. Gov. Pawlenty wants to ensure future labor disputes won't take similar bites out of kids' learning time.

Pawlenty's Education Commissioner, Alice Seagren, traveled throughout the state to pitch his latest spending plan. She says the governor wants a ban on school-year strikes included in the final K-12 negotiations.

"When you start shutting down schools you start hurting kids. "Kids cannot -- if you go on strike -- cannot regain that educational loss," says Seagren. "I think it's all about the kids and how we take care of our children first, and then our adult disagreements have to come second."

Details of the governor's plan remain sketchy, but Seagren says it's based on legislation introduced this year by Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield. That proposal, which failed to make it into the House K-12 finance bill, accomplished the strike-ban goal in an indirect way. It would forbid any contract negotiations between a school district and its teachers during the school year.

Demmer says the governor appears to be going in a different direction than his bill. He says his aim was simply to keep the focus of schools on education, not on labor issues.

"It's my contention that negotiations happening during the school year really divert a lot of attention and resources away from the primary purpose of schools, and that is to teach kids and enhance their educational environment," says Demmer.

Demmer's bill also called for withholding a portion of state funding from school districts that fail to settle teacher contracts before the start of a school year.

Bob Meeks of the Minnesota Association of School Boards says he supports the concept of preventing strikes during the school year, but he opposes the penalties included in the Demmer bill.

"Any time you withhold state aid, you're not talking about great harm to the employees or great harm to the community. You're talking about great harm to the students," says Meeks. "It's educational opportunities that are paid for with the revenue that could be withheld if there's not an agreement by a selected date. So, we don't think that's the route to go."

Meeks says school board members would prefer a type of binding arbitration as a way to avoid teacher strikes.

Minnesota teachers have had the right to strike since the 1970s. It's a right their statewide union is not ready give up. Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, was not available for comment, but a spokesman confirmed the union would oppose the governor's plan.

DFL leaders in the Minnesota Senate are lining up behind teachers. Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says union employees should keep their right to strike.

"My view is that collective bargaining is an essential part of the rights of all kinds of employees. And trying to limit it the way the governor proposed doesn't make sense to me," says Kelley.

Kelley says the timing of a strike is less important than its underlying causes. He says state lawmakers should put more effort into addressing issues like affordable health care, which was a key point of contention in the Crosby-Ironton strike.