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Few districts have teacher contracts

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Today would normally be the deadline for school districts and teachers to reach new contracts, under threat of a $25 per-student state penalty.

But in this bargaining cycle, relatively few districts have settled two-year contracts with teachers unions, in part because the 2001 Legislature suspended the Jan. 15 deadline.

The Rochester school district and its teachers reached a two-year contract agreement in September. The contract, which was barely approved by teachers, will give about half the district's 990 teachers a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment the first year and a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in the second year. The other half will be eligible for salary increases through "steps and lanes."

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Austin, however, is still bargaining with its teachers. The district and teachers have been assigned a state mediator and will meet with him Monday.

The longer contract talks go, the greater the chance there is for teacher strikes, say people on both sides of the labor fence. Minnesota's last teacher strike was in 1992 in the suburban Spring Lake Park district.

"We'd like to get them settled and have labor peace out there," said Rose Hermodson, an official with the Department of Children, Families and Learning, which for now is remaining neutral in contract talks.

"We don't want people spending all their time worrying about (unsettled contracts)," she said. "We'd like to have them worrying about what's happening in the classroom. It tends to detract from the classroom at times."

As of Monday, the Minnesota School Boards Association reported settlements for 66 districts out of more than 340 in the state.

Only 50 cases have wound up in mediation, about half of the amount the Bureau of Mediation Services normally would have handled at this point, agency Commissioner Lance Teachworth said. None have gone to arbitration.

Each district handles its own contracts. But many negotiate with an eye toward the settlements of like-sized neighbors, meaning deals often come in clumps.

The Jan. 15 deadline was lifted this year to give school districts more time to digest significant changes in education finance. It's not the only reason cited for the slow pace of negotiations.

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Because state budget decisions stretched into late June, some school districts didn't get financial audits back until late fall and a record number of districts sought more money from voters in November referenda.

"There was a natural slowdown just relative to not knowing what money is out there," said John Sylvester, the MSBA's director of management services.

With many districts claiming big budget gaps and the state battling a projected deficit of its own, there is even more uncertainty.

A new "structural balance" law requires school officials to prove that labor contracts won't put district budgets in the red. It was meant to stop what Gov. Jesse Ventura and some legislators saw as runaway contracts that schools couldn't afford.

On average, teacher contract settlements so far are slightly more restrained than the 1999-2001 cycle, according to the MSBA. Teachers are in line for average increases of about 9.4 percent in total compensation over the two years, compared to an increase of 10 percent in the previous contract period.

The structural balance law combined with the eased deadline and tough economic times favor school district leaders, said Mario Bognanno, professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

District leaders have long complained that the Jan. 15 deadline has forced them into rich contracts because some unions held out as long as they could.

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