The Minnesota Senate is expected to vote Thursday on a proposed statewide salary freeze for public school employees.
Supporters say the two-year freeze would help keep more teachers employed and stabilize the budgets of school districts and charter schools. Opponents argue the mandate takes away local control with little financial benefit.
Lawmakers are trying to erase a projected $6.2 billion state budget deficit and the chances of them coming up with any new money for primary and secondary schools look slim. Many school districts are already struggling after several years of flat state funding.
State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who proposed the salary bill, said a wage freeze won't help the state budget, but it will help schools navigate tough times if they don't have to pay for pay increases.
"To me it comes down to that simple choice of spreading the difficulty amongst a larger group and maintaining the people and the services that benefit students, or losing a lot of people and losing a lot of programs that will negatively impact education here in Minnesota over the next two years," he said.
Thompson's bill would freeze the salaries of all school employees for two years, unless an increase is part of a current contract. In addition, the bill prohibits strikes over wages and eliminates a Jan. 15 deadline for teacher-contract settlements. The measure also removes state requirements that schools spend money on staff development, counselors and nurses.
The statewide teachers union strongly opposes the bill. Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said there is no assurance that a pay freeze would save any jobs. Dooher said the mandate would also undermine a bargaining process that has already resulted in several locally negotiated wage freezes.
"We have seen districts do this voluntarily. We've seen districts that have actually had their higher paid employees take less so that the lower paid employees could get a raise," Dooher said. "So, I think what it does is it eliminates some creativity and work on the local side that's been a foundation of why our schools are strong and how our schools have functioned historically."
But overall, salaries and benefits have continued to rise. Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said a pay freeze would save districts statewide about $80 million a year. He said districts could then use that savings to prevent the layoffs of up to 15 hundred teachers.
When it comes to losing local control, Kyte argued that state labor laws have already taken away much of that authority.
"If we thought realistically that we could have 350 school districts or most of them absolutely hold the line on wages, we wouldn't be going down this road," Kyte said. "But our practical experience over many negotiation sessions is that that is not possible to do at the local level, and do it broadly across the state."
The bill has moved through two Senate committees with only Republicans voting for approval.
DFL State Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, who voted against the bill in committee, said she opposes a state intervention on wages. Bonoff said given the budget challenges ahead, everybody needs to be at the table looking for solutions.
"If we begin the process singling out one group with a very heavy-handed approach, I think we'll diminish the ability for people to be collaborative," Bonoff said. "And that's my concern."
A companion bill only recently surfaced in the House, with no hearings yet scheduled. Gov. Mark Dayton has been broadly critical of legislation targeting public sector employees, but he has not yet said if he would veto this specific bill.
The legislation would add a small amount to the state budget deficit. Its repeal of the Jan. 15 deadline, and a $25 per pupil penalty on school districts, would cost an estimated $571,000 over the next two years.