Teacher contract deals remain elusive in most Minnesota districts

People walk with white signs.
People walk with their signs during a protest in support of lowering class sizes on Nov. 14 at Rochester Public Schools. Rochester teachers hosted the protest ahead of the regular Rochester School Board meeting.
Maya Giron | Post Bulletin

Thousands of teachers across Minnesota held solidarity rallies last week to call attention to a contract negotiation process that, in many places, is taking longer than usual to resolve. 

Typically at this point in the negotiations cycle, about a third of Minnesota's more than 330 public school districts would have settled contracts with their licensed staff. This year, only about a quarter have reached agreement, according to Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

Teachers often work under expired contracts, but the relatively slow pace of talks has surprised some observers given that the Legislature this year backed a significant increase in per-pupil spending for Minnesota public schools.

Teachers statewide are “fired up,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. “They know there's an educator shortage in Minnesota, they know that their working conditions have become more challenging. And they know that things can be better, and they’re taking a stand.” 

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Last week, thousands of teachers in Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, left their classes at the end of the day to rally support for contract negotiations. They’ve been without a contract since June. 

Union leaders continue to negotiate this week with the district on salary and benefits as well as “supportive class sizes” and other issues. 

“So far, the district’s offer of salary increases ignores historic investments in public education by the Legislature and will do nothing to remedy the educator shortage that’s burning out teachers, and denying students the time and attention they deserve in smaller classes,” said Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota President Val Holthus.

The district, which is offering a 3 percent salary increase in the current school year and a 2 percent increase next academic year, said it is facing “tight budget parameters.” 

District leaders argue the recent increases in state funding approved by the Legislature aren’t enough to pay for the rise in salaries teachers are seeking and that accepting the union’s proposal would lead to staffing reductions. 

‘Live in the real world’

While Minnesota legislators this year approved big school funding increases, many of the state’s districts are facing budget cuts as federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds dry up. 

That includes the Rochester Public Schools, where the teachers contract expired in June and voters two weeks ago rejected the district’s technology spending plan, a defeat that officials say will necessitate at least $10 million in budget cuts before the next academic year.

The Rochester Education Association, the local union, organized a rally last week involving hundreds of teachers and community members who gathered at the public school district’s administration building to show solidarity during contract negotiations. 

“Our goal was to raise awareness in Rochester about the state of class sizes in our elementary schools,” said Rochester Education Association President Vince Wagner.  

The district is offering licensed staff a raise of nearly 15 percent over the current contract, an increase it says would be larger than any other reported contract settlement in Minnesota during the current negotiations cycle.

It’s a boost that Kent Pekel, Rochester’s superintendent, argues is necessary to recognize “the extraordinary work that (teachers) do with and for our students every day and the rising costs that they face in supporting their own families in today’s economy.” 

At the same time, the district is facing a 30-percent cost increase to its school bus contract and must deal with the financial fallout from voters rejecting the technology levy, said Pekel. 

“We must now focus on finding ways to cut and balance the district's budget for the 2024-2025 school year and the years that immediately follow,” Pekel wrote in an email to district families last week.

Pekel says the issue goes beyond the defeat of the school levy on Election Day.

“School districts, just like individual families live in the real world, and we have inflation,” Pekel told MPR News. 

“The Legislature and the governor took a significant step forward in the last legislative session, but that really was making up for lost ground,” he added. “It still didn’t come all the way to paying for the costs of meeting state standards and actually some of the new mandates that we have.”