Minnesota: Deadlines for teacher contracts a point of debate

/ 25 March 2012 / jennifer

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, March 25, 2012 –

When South St. Paul school board members vote Monday, March 26, on whether to give teachers a new two-year contract, they’ll be doing so months later than in past years.

This is no typical year.

Lawmakers did away with the previous Jan. 15 deadline in 2011. Now, 10 weeks after that date has passed in 2012, more than 40 percent of contracts in the state remain unsettled. Under the old rules those districts would have faced financial penalties.

Union leaders say the change hurts morale because it leaves many teachers nearing the end of the school year still working under expired contracts. Administrators, who support the change, counter that the deadline allowed teachers to hold out for better terms because school leaders feared financial penalties if negotiations were not complete by the deadline.

Either way, 145 school districts have yet to come to an agreement with their teachers, according to data kept by Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

In Dakota County, Hastings, Burnsville and Inver Grove Heights settled in March, with South St. Paul scheduled to vote Monday. West St. Paul school leaders plan to vote in April, which would make the district the last in the south metro county to settle.

“I do believe the lack of deadlines has a huge difference,” said Dave Sutherland, president of the South St. Paul Teachers Association. “Since they weren’t in a hurry, they didn’t want to make progress toward the middle.”

Negotiations in South

St. Paul were strained, but not contentious, Sutherland said. “The district came to a point where they decided to go to mediation. We didn’t get the settlement we were looking for but, at the same time, we felt good about what we did get.”

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, 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.”

In a statement, Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, 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.”

Dave Webb, South St. Paul superintendent, said this was his first negotiating session in the district so he couldn’t offer a comparison with other years. Webb does appreciate expediency, he said. “I still encourage the idea of getting things done sooner rather than later. (Delay) makes staffing timelines a little more challenging.”

Under the tentative deal, South St. Paul teachers will receive a quarter-percent raise in the first year and a 1.25 percent raise in the second year. Sutherland said 78 percent of teachers voted in favor of the proposal.

Statewide the average salary increases are 1 percent in each year, according to Education Minnesota. That translates into an average cost of $1,845 in the first year and $1,980 in the second, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, which tracks the cost of new contracts.

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress. Read our blog: Ahead of the Class at http://blogs.twincities.com/education/.