Good riddance to one-sided school penalties

/ 28 March 2012 / jennifer

Pioneer Press Editorial, March 28, 2012 –

In recent years, Minnesota school districts alone have borne the responsibility – and paid the price for failing – to wrap up teacher negotiations in a timely manner.

In Minneapolis in 2010, for example, the school district paid an $800,000 fine for failing to reach an agreement with its teachers by the legally prescribed deadline.

That method of encouraging timeliness changed in 2011, when lawmakers did away with the Jan. 15 deadline and the fine of $25 per student. A hit like that to a district’s bottom line isn’t acceptable in an era when we evaluate education measures by asking, “Is it good for kids?” Neither is one-sided responsibility for what happens at the bargaining table.

In part because of the result of the 2011 change, negotiations across the state this year have taken months longer than in the past. It’s a tradeoff we can accept, and we hope lawmakers will resist pressure to return to past practice.

In January, about 55 percent of school districts didn’t have new agreements in place, according to a Pioneer Press report.

Two months later, 42 percent, or 142, remain unsettled, according to figures Education Minnesota provided March 28. The St. Paul district wrapped up its contract with approvals by teachers and the school board in February.

On one side are union leaders, who say the change away from a hard deadline hurts morale because it leaves many teachers nearing the end of the school year still working under expired contracts, the Pioneer Press’ Christopher Magan reported. But administrators, who support the change away from a hard deadline, counter that the deadline allowed teachers to hold out for better terms because school leaders feared the financial penalties.

Magan quoted Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, who said negotiating this late in the school year isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I like to see both parties working toward a solution,” he said. “I do not feel it would be appropriate to re-introduce an artificial timeline.”

School leaders felt the deadline was a one-sided penalty, Amoroso said. “In economic times like these, for a school district to have to take money out of the general fund because they don’t have a contract with a bargaining unit is not good,” he said. “The penalty was imposed on one party. This levels the playing field.”

Magan also quoted a statement from Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, who said he supports re-instating the deadline: “Clearly, a deadline is necessary to get the job done. Private business has deadlines. Even the Legislature has deadlines. They exist because they require people to get their work done, and important work deserves a deadline,” he said. “When contract negotiations drag on, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the community.”

Deadlines have benefits. People do some of their best work on deadline. Some work would never get done without a deadline. But if financial penalties are deemed necessary to move the negotiating process along, they can’t be one-sided.