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Wage Freezes Now on the Negotiating Table

September 14, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Teachers in the Eden Prairie school district agreed last week to freeze their wages for the next two years. They join a handful of bargaining units that have agreed to a wage freeze, while tens of thousands of Minnesota teachers in hundreds of school districts consider the same decision.

Wage freezes may be practical in these difficult economic times, but teachers, school board members and parents need to be cautious as they move forward.

Teachers are not stupid. Minnesota teachers' salaries have slipped from seventh in the nation in the 1980s to 20th in the 2008-09 school year. They go to where the money is, and increasingly, the money is not in Minnesota.

This year, flat funding in state aid and falling property values mean districts and teachers have fewer dollars to consider during contract negotiations. A spokesman with Education Minnesota told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week that only seven of Minnesota's 350 bargaining units have settled contracts.

Eden Prairie faces a $10 million budget deficit in the 2010-11 school year, a problem teachers acknowledge. Although they will receive no cost-of-living increases, teachers will receive "step" increases tied to years of experience, and "lane" increases for continuing education.

Angie Roesner, Eden Prairie's teacher union president, told the Star Tribune her group overwhelmingly supported the freeze. "It was important to us to work together (with the district) and look at what we can do to make sure Eden Prairie stays strong in the field of education."

The Pioneer Press took a survey of districts in the east Metro area and found:
In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district, the district's negotiating team has had one meeting with its teachers union, which represents 750 teachers. "The economic times will certainly have an impact on negotiations, and the flat funding for the next two years. ... Every district knows that," said Sue Grissom, executive director of human resources for the school district.

In Lakeville's ISD 194, the union representing more than 700 teachers has met with the district's negotiating team 14 times since April, but the target date of Aug. 21 that both sides had agreed upon came and went without a contract. The union has filed for mediation, said Don Sinner, local union president.

In the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district, which has 340 teachers, the district has filed to bring in an outside mediator, said MaryAnn Thomas, director of human resources. Negotiators have met eight times since February without major progress.

"We're trying to negotiate a fair and equitable settlement for our teachers. That's about all I'll say right now. It's hard. It is hard," said Diane Thompson, West St. Paul Federation of Teachers president and a middle school math teacher.

In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, which has the fourth-largest teachers union in the state, officials opened formal talks with the 2,200-member bargaining unit in July.

"I think typically around the state, everyone is nervous about being the first one to settle," said Jim Smola, president of the teachers union. "I think everyone is waiting to see what other districts do, to get an idea of what the settlement range will be."

Teachers, other unions and school board members are caught in a situation not entirely of their own making. State aid to Minnesota's schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent since 2003. This disinvestment in education has inevitable ripples, including a teaching corps that is underpaid.

Minnesota's teachers love their students and they love to teach. Because of this, we anticipate most will accept wage freezes for the coming two-year contract period. But everyone in the education industry knows that there is a limit to how much of a wage cut or freeze teachers will accept.

Without substantial investment in education, Minnesota will continue to fall into mediocrity. In two years, this will likely be the subject of contract negotiations. Minnesotans will have to decide, how badly do they want a corps of quality educators?
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