A nearly $500 million increase in state education funding approved by lawmakers this spring seems to be clearing the way for teacher pay raises, at least in some parts of the state.
Teachers across Minnesota are in the midst of negotiating contracts that cover this school year and next year and as of Thursday, 88 of the state's 333 districts had signed new two-year contracts with their teachers.
On average, the agreements are more generous than in the recent past. Teacher wages are up 1.7 percent in the first year of the contracts, and 2.3 percent in the second year, according to the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota.
That's better than the last contract period, when the first and second year increases were just one percent on average.
The union's data doesn't include increases in steps and lanes, the automatic raises teachers receive based on seniority, education and training. It also doesn't take into consideration any increases or decreases in health care expenses.
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht speculates the recent boost in state education funding is helping teachers get raises in their contracts.
"The increase in funding obviously opens the door to some of those conversations and rightly so," Specht said.
The Legislature offered $485 million in new funding to the state's schools last session through a 1.5 percent increase in per-pupil funding in each of the next two years. It also includes $134 million for all-day kindergarten starting next fall.
Lawmakers also made changes to the state's complicated school finance system that will help some districts, depending on their location and their size, secure more state funding.
Although Minnesota teacher contracts expired July 1, it's not uncommon for negotiations on new contracts to stretch well into the new year.
Last week, teachers and district officials in Belle Plaine settled on a contract that includes raises and a bigger district contribution toward healthcare coverage.
Superintendent Kelly Smith credits the new state funding for that agreement.
"For the first time in 6 to 10 years we felt like we had new some money coming to the district and that allowed us to provide better settlements for not just teachers but other bargaining units as well," Smith said.
That's the sort of news that gives hope to teachers still in the middle of the bargaining process.
"School funding really has turned a corner," said Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin Teachers' Union. "For a lot of us we're really hoping that these settlements will turn a corner as well."
Blaha said after a pay freeze in their last contract, the 2,700 teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin district are asking for a two and a half percent raise in each of the next two years. She said that's reasonable, considering the new education funding from the state.
But Anoka-Hennepin superintendent Dennis Carlson said teachers shouldn't rely on the recent increase in funding to push their pay upward.
Carlson said the new state money is far from a windfall for his district. Part of it, like money for all day kindergarten, won't arrive until next year.
"I think when you get to negotiations and there [are] expectations that this new money is all going to go for salaries somehow, it's just not a rational thought," he said.
Carlson said his district is in better shape financially that is was in the past, but still faces funding challenges. He won't offer a prediction on what might happen as talks continue.
Just how teachers across the state fare in this round of contract talks depends on the financial situation in each of their districts.
Districts are still making up for years of lagging funding, and that has school leaders playing the negotiation game cautiously, said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, which lobbies on behalf of the state's superintendents.
"We want to have a good conversation, we want to have fair contract settlements while at the same time maintaining fiscal stability for our districts," Amoroso said. "That's very important."
There's no deadline for when teacher contracts need to be settled. Three years ago the Legislature repealed a statute that fined school districts that didn't settle contracts before Jan. 15.