Minnesota To Force Districts To Meet Contract Deadline or Lose Aid
A new Minnesota law gives school boards and teachers' unions a compelling reason to conclude their contract negotiations promptly: If they fail to reach agreements by a specified date, their districts will lose state aid.
The new law, thought to be the first of its kind in the nation, was added as an amendment to an education measure passed by lawmakers last month.
Beginning in the next school year, districts will lose $25 per pupil if negotiations extend beyond Jan. 15. The state will distribute the money among districts that meet the deadline.
"We've had a significant number of districts that have really been dragging their feet in getting contracts settled," said Senator Steven Morse, the measure's sponsor. "We've seen contracts going a year without being settled."
Senator Morse, a former school-board member, said he "wanted to provide a powerful incentive" for districts to speed up the negotiating process.
Teacher contracts in Minnesota expire in July of every odd-numbered year, and cannot be reopened. Because the state adopts two-year budgets in the same years, Mr. Morse explained, some local unions and school boards have stalled on contract negotiations in the hope that the legislature would appropriate more money for education during the second year of the biennium.
When the legislature has done so, the effect has been "devastating" for contract negotiations, said Bob Meeks, the Minnesota School Boards Association's associate director for legislative services.
The new provision, which was8added by Mr. Morse shortly before the omnibus education bill won final legislative approval, took the state's education community by surprise.
Representatives of state and national education groups differed in their assessments of its impact.
Both Mr. Meeks and Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said students would suffer the most if their districts did not receive their full share of state aid.
Mr. Shannon described the penalty as an unwelcome intrusion into labor-management relations that would never be tolerated in private business.
Mr. Meeks added that districts that have gone to arbitration in labor disputes may be unfairly penalized if the process extends beyond Jan. 15.
James P. McDermott, a business agent for the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, said the law could "wind up in the courts" because it could be construed as denying students equal education opportunity.
"It has yet to be tested as to its impact, legality, or constitutionality," Mr. McDermott said. "Our basic, visceral reaction is, let's wait and see."
But Gene Mammenga, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Education Association, said teachers in his union welcomed an incentive to reach agreements--and potential salary increases--more quickly.
"Wouldn't you hate to be a board member and explain to the public why 25 bucks of your money is going to go down the road to someone else?" he asked.
Mr. Mammenga predicted the penalty would hurt rural districts more than urban systems, since the former have traditionally taken4longer to settle contracts.
"I think they may be somewhat surprised about who suffers the penalty in this," he said.
Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, said the law was the latest in a series of steps that states have taken toward greater control over the collective-bargaining process.
He suggested that either side could use the threat of the penalty to its advantage.
"Teachers will know that the closer they get to that day, if [the contract is] not resolved, it's going to cost the employer a percent," he said. "They can say, 'Give me that percent.' Or the employer can say, 'Tomorrow the 7 percent deal will be 6 percent."'
Mr. Meeks said the state school-boards association had advised its members to "settle by Jan. 15 if at all possible." Bargaining has already begun in many districts, he noted.