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Minnesota Teacher-Contract Woes Linked to State Funding

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Minnesota's history of protracted teacher-contract negotiations is the result of the unequal funding and organization of the state's 433 school districts, not of the collective-bargaining process, a report commissioned by two legislative panels concludes.

The report, which examines the possibility of implementing a system of regional collective bargaining, recommends that the legislature tackle inequalities among school districts before attempting any changes in collective-bargaining procedures.

"We believe that Minnesota would be making a serious mistake if it attempted to address the concerns and complaints attributable to the existing structure and funding of the K-12 system solely through a mandated regional or statewide bargaining structure," the report states.

The report by an outside consulting firm was commissioned by the legislative commissions on employee relations and public education last June, amid growing complaints about the collective-bargaining process for teachers.

Critics have charged that the current bargaining process, in which teachers negotiate separate contracts in each district, takes too much time, diverts resources away from education, creates animosity in school districts, and results in an unnecessary duplication of effort.

Fiscal disparities among rural, suburban, and urban school districts are further complicated, the report notes, by wide differences in the ability to pass tax referendums to provide more money for schools.

Loss of Control Feared

No state mandates multidistrict bargaining, the report found, although Minnesota and a few others allow districts to bargain together voluntarily.

New York State examined the possibility of a statewide bargaining structure in the early 1970's. But a proposal to combine full state funding of precollegiate education with statewide labor negotiations "met a quick death" for political reasons, the report says.

Most major educational organizations in Minnesota oppose a change to a system of regional or a statewide bargaining system, the report indicates. Opponents of the idea most often cite loss of local control over schools as their chief objection, while also expressing concern that such a move might be a prelude to forced school-district consolidation, the report says.

Until last year, it was common for Minnesota districts not to have reached an agreement on a new teachers' contract six months after the previous contract had expired. All teachers' contracts expire at the end of June in odd-numbered years.

A 1989 law, however, set Jan. 15 of this year as the deadline for school districts to reach agreements on new contracts. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

Under the law, districts that failed to reach agreements were to be penalized $25 per pupil, with the money to be distributed among districts that had reached agreements. The penalty was believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Five districts failed to meet the deadline last month. They will lose some $350,000 in state aid.

As of mid-January two years ago, 241 districts had not settled their teachers' contracts.

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