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Bills on teacher-contract deadlines: Reform or anti-labor moves?

Is a legislative move to do away with state law that fines school districts $25 per pupil if they fail to ink union contracts by a Jan.

Is a legislative move to do away with state law that fines school districts $25 per pupil if they fail to ink union contracts by a Jan. 15 deadline education reform, or one more ripple in the tsunami of GOP anti-labor bills being introduced in statehouses across the country?

Oh, why quibble? It’s a two-fer — at least in the eyes of Minnesota Republicans.

Sponsors of the six virtually identical bills — three in the state Senate and three in the House — say they are needed to help beleaguered school districts go up against and this year’s scariest political golem, Organized Teacher Labor.

The counterargument: In a year when Education Minnesota and its uncharacteristically divided DFL supporters need to find ways to make headway on tough policy changes called for by the Obama administration, it’s awfully easy for the majority to pile on under the guise of reform.

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The assumption underlying the measures is that the deadlines give the unions an upper hand by allowing them to run out the clock while district negotiators grow increasingly desperate. “It’s important for local districts to have a level playing field in their contract negotiations,” said Republican Rep. Keith Downey.

By way of example, he cites the $230,000 fine Edina Public Schools paid last year for failing to meet the deadline, despite twice having reached good-faith agreements with labor leaders only to have the union’s general membership vote them down.

“The original intent of the law was purportedly one of fairness,” he added. “But who gets hurt? The kids.”

(For the record, Downey’s version of the bill, House File 92, last week passed out of the lower chamber’s Education Policy Committee and was forwarded to the K-12 Finance Committee. Not that it matters: The three introduced were as identical as if ripped from a party playbook.)

The kids certainly are the ones who are going to end up hurt, agreed Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota and thus Head Golem. But the reasoning that unions have no reason to help districts meet the deadlines is dead wrong.

“There is an incentive because if the district loses that money, there’s less money to deal with,” he said.

Minneapolis last year paid a record $800,000 fine for missing the every-other-year deadline.

Back and forth over the years
Three-fourths of Minnesota school districts went into 1988 with no contract in place. Reasoning that extended bargaining disrupted the education process, especially in smaller communities, in 1989 the Legislature imposed the first deadline on a trial basis. In 1990, the percentage of districts without contracts on Jan. 15 was just 1.4 percent.

Rates hovered between 2 and 5 percent until 1998, when the deadline was suspended and more than 60 percent failed to reach a settlement. Rates dropped the next year when it was reimposed, shot back up to 74 percent in 2002 when it was again suspended and declined again thereafter.

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Nor are the 11th-hour deals propelled by fear of the fine necessarily worse than the ones inked early and amicably, the union maintains. On the whole, the later a deal is struck, the leaner the contract, it claims.

Which tiptoes perhaps closer to the real point: With Minnesota lawmakers facing a deficit of $6.2 billion, deadline or no, just who is getting a raise? Probably not teachers and probably not, as Downey and Dooher both noted, the state’s schoolchildren.