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Contract Deadline in Minn. Seen Spurting Hefty Pay Raises

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Some Minnesota educators and state officials are contending that a state law that sots a deadline for teacher-contract negotiations is responsible for a recent flurry of double-digit settlements.

The negotiated raises in pay and benefits are drawing criticism for being unaffordable and out of line with the increases that will be given to state employees.

Although school districts will receive about 3 percent more state aid for the two years covered by the contracts, the average contract settlement for the same period will cost a total of 8.4 percent, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. That disparity has given rise to concerns that the contracts will prompt budget cuts or layoffs in some districts. In addition, the settlements have come under fire from state officials, who say that teachers' wage-and benefit packages are far more generous than those of state workers.

Commissioner of Finance John Gunyou said the contracts negotiated by the state government's 40,000 employees will cost 5.25 percent more over the biennium.

"It's really a question of what's affordable during a recession," Mr. Gunyou said last week. "the process we have in Minnesota is delivering contracts that are double those of the other public bargaining units."

A 'Lever' for Unions

The finance commissioner said he believes a 1989 state law that penalizes districts $25 per pupil in state aid if they fail to reach agreements with their teachers' unions by Jan. 15 has "put pressure on the collective-bargaining process that maybe isn't the best kind of pressure."

Teachers' contracts in Minnesota expire in July of every odd-numbered year and correspond with the state's biennial budget. Before the' law was passed, it was not unusual for half of the state's school districts to be without contracts six months into the bienmum.

This year, 10 of the 402 districts missed the deadline and will be penalized a total of $237,960. Two years ago, four districts were penalized a total of $380,000.

Since only a small fraction of all districts have missed the deadline, there is little debate over whether the law has succeeded in bringing an end to lengthy negotiations. But some observers argue that it has contributed to pressure on school beards to increase teachers' wages and benefits.

The law has had a "negative impact on perhaps the majority of school districts," asserted John Sylvester, the director of management services for the school-boards association.

Because forgoing state money for education is a politically unattractive option, he said, some beards have agreed to contracts that cost more than they might have without a looming deadline.

"We think it has been used by the teacher bargaining unions as a lever,'' Mr. Sylvester said. "They've informed the public that the beard could allow money to go when they could settle for less with [teachers] ."

Robert Astrup, president of the Minnesota Education Association, which represents 83 percent of the staffs precollegiate teachers, called that assertion "a bunch of poppycock."

Mr. Astrup said there is no evidence that the deadline, already six months after the expiration of the previous contract, had led to higher salary settlements.

Mr. Sylvester and Mr. Astrup cautioned against concluding that the recent contract settlements are too expensive, noting that some districts have reserve money or funds from levy referendums with which to pay for them.

Twin Cities Contracts

The contract settlements that have drawn the most notice are in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Anoka-Hennepin, for example--the state's second-largest district'agreed to a contract that will cost 10.9 percent over two years.

The Minneapolis contract will cost an additional 10.1 percent--or $13.8 million--while the St. Paul contract will cost 10.4 percent more.

Both of the Twin Cities districts are facing budget deficits, but spokesmen for the two school systems said it would not be accurate to blame the shortfalls solely on the teachers' contracts.

St. Paul, for example, budgeted for the increased costs associated with a new teachers' contract and is projecting a deficit of $4.5 million.

Cheryl Marty, the district's communications officer, said the shortfall was due mainly to voters' rejection of a 1990 tax-levy referendum that would have allowed the district to maintain its current programs.

Minneapolis is projecting a deficit of about $10 million, $6 million of which officials attribute to the teachers' contract.

Finance Commissioner Gunyou's comments about the cost of the settlements have angered the M.E.A., which uses a different method for calculating the cost of the contracts.

School boards voluntarily report the "true costs" of contracts, including salary-schedule increases, raises for longevity and educational levels, health insurance, retirement-fund contributions, and other costs. But the M.E.A., considers Only new money added to the salary schedule.

By its calculations, the teachers' association estimates that the average salary-schedule increase for the two-year period covered by the recent contracts is 5.57 percent.

'Bum Rap'

"We think we're getting a bum rap on this thing," Mr. Astrup said. "Critics hone in on those few [districts] that are high in comparison to the average. But nobody wants to look at the ones that settled for 4 percent or 6 percent for two years."

In a newsletter to association members, Mr. Astrup called Mr. Gunyou's frequent public comments about the cost of the contracts "ill-conceived and irresponsible." The union official added that it was "grossly unfair" for the finance commissioner to compare the total cost of teachers' contracts to state employees' pacts. Mr. Astrup said such comparisons were "apples to oranges."

But Mr. Gunyou countered last week that the M.E.A. has been trying to "confuse the issue."

According to the finance chief, the 5.25 percent cost of the state employees' contracts also includes benefits and other costs.

Both the finance commissioner and Gene Mammenga, the state commissioner of education, said the teachers' contracts are likely to result in mounting pressure on state legislators to increase aid to school districts.

"Legislators fear some consequences in the second year of the biennium as a result of the bargaining," Mr. Mammenga said. "They certainly feel as though they have no control over the situation."

Mr. Mammenga said he believed that the issue of whether Minnesota should move to a system of regional bargaining for teachers was likely to get renewed attention from legislators in the face of such pressure from their constituents.

"Putting more money into the aid formula is not a likely event," he said.

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