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Minn. Districts Overextended on Contracts, Officials Say

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Minnesota school districts using one-time state funds to pay for teacher-salary increases may find themselves in a bind when the state's two-year budget cycle ends, officials warned recently.

School boards' contract settlements with teachers' unions could leave a $186 million gap in school funding at the end of the current biennium, according to the commissioners of three state agencies, who argued that districts are misappropriating the state's school-budget increase.

"School districts knew on the day they signed these contract agreements that they would have to make cuts immediately in other areas to meet these obligations," Laura M. King, the commissioner of the department of finance, said in a statement released Feb. 6.

State officials said that in the most recent round of collective bargaining, which ended last month, districts negotiated teacher contracts that will boost salaries by an average of 3.9 percent this year and 3.4 percent next year--a level that will force the state to either come up with new money or leave districts stranded.

Wayne Simoneau, the commissioner of the employee-relations department, said that union contracts will use about 72 percent of the $566 million in new money allocated to K-12 education over the next two years. Much of that money was allocated as one-time funding.

"No one is saying that good teachers shouldn't get a pay raise," Mr. Simoneau said. "But these kinds of commitments only expand over time and don't ensure the best for children." He warned that the trends in contract negotiations could lead to a $1 billion jump in property taxes in 1999, or cuts that would hamper the quality of Minnesota schools.

Bruce Johnson, the commissioner of the department of children, families, and learning, the successor to the state education department, said Gov. Arne Carlson and lawmakers had assumed districts would use the new funding for classroom improvements instead of increasing compensation. The state would have been better off if districts had used the money to hire new teachers in an effort to lower class sizes, he said, instead of bumping up its entire salary obligation.

Seizing on Teachers

Representatives of teachers, meanwhile, have defended the raises and pointed to the state leaders' attacks as predictable politicking.

The Republican governor's administration supports several initiatives that are strongly opposed by teachers' unions: private school vouchers, merit pay, tenure changes, and changes in labor laws to give teachers less leverage in contract negotiations. The legislature, controlled by Democrats, has been skeptical of Mr. Carlson's agenda and killed his voucher proposal only days after he proclaimed it his top legislative priority.

Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Carlson's administration is bent on discrediting the union.

"The governor used the [salary] statistics to his advantage," Ms. Peterson said. "The teachers' contracts settled under the cost of living for the last two years."

Mr. Johnson, however, said that the recent contract settlements show that teachers refuse to join in the sacrifices brought on by a tight state budget. He added that lawmakers should enact the governor's bold reform agenda as a payback for the "generous contracts now signed and sealed."

"Minnesota has been on the cutting edge of education reform and, if we are to soften the impact of the fiscal train wreck on our children, bold and courageous change will be a vital part of our future," Mr. Johnson said.

Ms. Peterson countered: "I think the governor wants to drive wedges between the teachers and the school boards; the taxpayers and the teachers. He's trying to put the onus on teachers for the lack of money."

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