Photo: #Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher speaks to reporters at the State Office Building in St. Paul on Friday, Jan. 15, just hours before a state-mandated deadline requiring every school district in the state to have new teacher contracts in place. The union predicts 28 districts will miss that deadline -- a number that was scrawled onto a chart just before Friday morning's press conference.

Schools face record fines as districts lack teacher contracts

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
January 15, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — The state's teachers union predicts 28 school districts will miss Friday's midnight deadline to have new contracts in place with their teachers, a number that will likely result in the highest amount of fines ever imposed by the state in a single year.

Education Minnesota predicts more than 300 school districts across the state will have ratified contracts by midnight. That number will become more accurate over the weekend as local union affiliates report those ratifications.

"Despite all the difficulties and troubled times, (teachers and administration) worked through their issues together," union president Tom Dooher said at a press conference Friday morning. "They did the best they could under tough conditions, and their communities should be proud."

Some districts are bumping up against the deadline. In Elk River, the district and union reached a deal last weekend, but that deal was only voted upon by members Friday morning, with the school board slated to ratify the deal at 6pm, just five hours before the deadline.

Districts that will miss the deadline include Minneapolis, Edina, Hibbing and St. Cloud. Some of those districts will miss the deadline because they never reached a deal (Minneapolis and St. Cloud); others will miss because union members voted against a deal that had been tentatively reached (Chaska and Edina).

The fine is $25 per pupil, which will amount to about $800,000 for Minneapolis. If imposed, it would rank as the largest fine ever levied on a district for missing the contract deadline. According the state Department of Education, the previous largest fine was on Duluth, which was penalized $386,752 in 1994. Penalties were first given in 1990.

Statewide, the largest total amount for fines was also in 1994, when 17 districts were penalized a total of $832,000. Minneapolis's expected fine this year would almost equal that, meaning this year's total penalties should set a new record.

This will be the second straight contract deadline St. Cloud has missed. Two years ago the district was fined $270,000. South Koochiching-Rainy River, Kelliher, and Houston are other districts that have missed the deadline in the past and been penalized.

Every district in Minnesota is on the same schedule for teacher contracts, which last for two years.

The average cost-of-living pay increase for teachers statewide this year is less than one percent in each year of the contract.

Some contracts that don't include cost-of-living increases, which raise the entire pay scale, do still include so-called "step-and-lane" increases. These are raises built into the pay scale for years of experience and additional education.

Dooher said inflation and higher health care costs mean many teachers are taking the equivalent of a pay cut.

"Minnesota teachers are taking unprecedented sacrifices," he said. "Like thousands of other Minnesotans, they have less money today to live on than they did a year ago, and just like all Minnesotans, they're working longer hours under tougher working conditions."

Last year's average salary increase for Minnesota teachers was 2.4 percent. Nationally it was 2.9 percent, according to statistics from the National Education Association.

The potential for record fines in a year with such dismal budget news on both the state and district level has prompted some groups, including the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, to plan to press lawmakers to retroactively revoke the fine for this contract cycle, when they return to the Capitol on Feb. 4. At least one bill was introduced last year to do just that.

Dooher, though, said the penalty is the only way to enforce the law that mandates all contracts be in place by every other Jan. 15. Only about 38 percent of districts have contracts in place by Jan. 15 during years there are no deadline; compared to more than 90 percent when the deadline is in place.

Dropping the fine this year, Dooher added, would only encourage districts to ignore the deadline in two years.

Districts and unions were negotiating amidst bleak economic news from the state, including lower budget forecasts and hints from state officials that K-12 education funding could be cut in coming months.

Just this week, the state's budget director told lawmakers the state is looking to delay payments to colleges, universities, and K-12 schools to shore up cash flow. That delay would be on top of the payment shifts Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered last summer to balance the state's budget.

Pawlenty has railed against districts that grant pay raises for teachers in such tight times, noting the salary increases that are usually reported to the general public are only cost-of-living increases and don't include steps and lanes or higher health care costs. "When everybody else in our state is facing wage freezes, furloughs, hour reductions, wage concessions, layoffs, the general goal should be for our public employees to held flat," Pawlenty said during a press conference Friday morning. "Some districts are doing it, some aren't."

There is very little the governor can do, though, to punish specific districts because the state's funding formula is based largely on student enrollment, not teacher pay.

Districts that have missed the deadline still need to come to an agreement on a new contract.

"I had hoped for the best," said Eastern Carver County Superintendent David Jennings of the rejection of a proposed contract this week by his district's union. "I believe all the economic and financial news going forward is going to be more and more dire, and the prospects of this turning out to be a bigger (contract) settlement later on are non-existent."