Deadline looming for teacher contracts

Fewer than half of the state's school districts have reached deals on new contracts with their teachers and the remaining have until the end of next week to do so.

The deadline comes as districts grapple with the possibility that the state might cut funding in coming months. Gov. Pawlenty is also pressuring districts to hold down raises.

Sandy Skaar, president of the union that represents the 2,800 teachers in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, is clearly relieved to have reached a deal.

"I've been doing bargaining now for 12 years, and this was clearly the most difficult round of bargaining I've ever experienced," Skaar said.

Union members and the school board are expected to ratify the deal next week. In a district that's already cut millions of dollars and closed schools to trim costs, union leadership agreed to a contract that includes no salary increases.

"When you're in bargaining, it helps to have money available for which you can bargain," Skaar said. "And we all know what the economic situation is like in the state."

"I've been doing bargaining now for 12 years, and this was clearly the most difficult round of bargaining I've ever experienced."

Every district in Minnesota is on the same schedule for teacher contracts, which all last two years. The state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, says as of today, 160 locals have pacts in place. That number will increase as next Friday's deadline approaches.

Education Minnesota also says, statewide, the average pay raise in those contracts is about 1 percent. That's lower than last year, when the statewide average was 2.3 percent.

"Teachers don't gain large salary increases when the economy booms and yet when the economy is tough, they expect teachers to take cuts like everyone else, and we understand that," said Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota's president. "But the point is that we need to invest in our kids, and that means getting money into our schools."

Dooher also notes that the statewide average pay raise has usually been below the rate of inflation in recent years. Other public employees are also seeing little or no pay increases. Employees of both the state and of Hennepin County who are in the AFSCME union agreed this year to contracts that offer no pay hikes, but do offer some increases for years of experience.

But it's those raises for teachers, even small ones, that are drawing the ire of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"At a time when most Minnesotans are either not getting pay increases or getting furloughs at work or even layoffs, we should expect the public sector to hold down pay increases and benefit increases - and too many of our school districts seem to be giving those away and at the same time complaining they don't have any money," Pawlenty told reporters Tuesday in White Bear Lake. "And those two things don't add up."

There's little, if anything, the governor can actually do to punish a district that pays out large pay increases. That's because the state's funding formula is based on how many students are enrolled, not how much the teachers get paid.

Charlie Kyte lobbies for Minnesota's superintendents and administrators, the other people in the room during contract negotiations. Kyte doesn't expect the governor's comments to influence talks that much. He's worried they might do more to tarnish the status of teaching.

"But I think the piece that's also going on is he's coming to realize that without any new revenue, there's some serious budget-cutting that still has to be done," Kyte said. "I'm almost asking myself if he isn't using this as camouflage to justify cutting back school funding."

Another factor is that there are two kinds of pay freezes, often referred to as 'hard' and 'soft.' A soft freeze freezes salaries but keeps in place what are called 'steps and lanes.' Steps and lanes are ways to pay teachers more as they gain experience or another degree. Hard freezes also freeze those steps and lanes.

The Anoka-Hennepin deal, for example, has zero pay raises but does include steps and lanes in the first year - which means most teachers will get a small bump. In this year of tight budgets, the debate over soft or hard freezes has become a major issue in some negotiations, like Minneapolis and St. Cloud.

St. Cloud's union has already said it expects to miss next week's deadline, which means the district would face about a $250,000 penalty. Some groups plan to lobby lawmakers to suspend that penalty - at least this year - because of how dire the budget situation is.

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