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Surprises turn positive for Winona teacher and reservist Matt Reuter

One thing led to another as Gov. Mark Dayton was honored by the National Education Association.

Gov. Mark Dayton shaking hands with educator and Air Force reservist Matt Reuter after signing the K-12 omnibus education bill.

When Matt Reuter returned home from a tour with the Air Force Reserves in Afghanistan a year ago, he was greeted by a rude surprise. A state law that applied only to educators required him to reimburse his employer for the cost of replacing him while he was gone.

After hearing his story last week at the National Education Association’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., teachers from all over the country were moved to take up a collection to reimburse Reuter, a third-grade teacher at Goodview Elementary in Winona.

“It was unbelievable,” Reuter said Monday. “Not what I expected at all.”

In fact, Reuter is so overwhelmed that he can’t wait until the NEA’s state branch, Education Minnesota, uploads its video of the event onto YouTube. Then, it might seem real.

The big question

Why was an elementary school teacher deployed overseas expected to finance his own sub?

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Public-sector employees in Minnesota who leave their jobs for deployment are eligible for what’s known as a pay differential. If the salary they would have earned at home during their deployment is $50,000 and their military wages $25,000, their employer puts the difference into an escrow account that is turned over to the serviceman or woman upon their return.  

In 2004, the law was amended to include a clause requiring any wages paid to substitute teachers and other temps to come out of a school district employees’ back pay.

When Reuter stepped back onto U.S. soil on July 3, 2011, a bill for $11,300 awaited him.

Active duty military personnel are not allowed to engage in political activities, so things might have ended there. As it happened, though, Goodview is also where Minnesota’s 2011 teacher of the year, Katy Smith, teaches.

A colleague’s appeal

Invited for a congratulatory lunch with the governor, Smith took Reuter’s Christmas card, which described the indignity, along and asked him to read it.

Mark Dayton couldn’t do anything about the miserable way Reuter’s service was repaid, but he made it his personal mission to eliminate the requirement during the 2012 legislative session.

Reuter was there on May 1 when Dayton signed the K-12 omnibus education bill.

And he was there last week to watch the NEA, one of the two national teachers’ unions to which Education Minnesota belongs, honor Dayton with its America’s Greatest Education Governor award.

What happened blew his mind

Or so Reuter thought. What actually happened blew his mind.

When Dayton took to the stage, he played a three-minute video EM had made of Reuter telling his story. After which the governor asked him to stand and be recognized. The 9,000 teachers in attendance responded with thunderous applause.

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“I don’t think I’d ever even been in a building that housed that many people before,” Reuter said. “I didn’t know anything like that would happen.”

That wasn’t all.

“People started coming up and saying thank you,” said Reuter. “I sat down, and then a lady came up and said, ‘We’d like to do something. We’d like to raise money for you.’”

Unbeknownst to him, members of delegations from unions from several states were having the same thought. Pretty soon, someone got up and, using the big screen his video had been shown on, made a resolution.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said.

And there was more …

Afterward, mindful of the fact that it was the one-year anniversary of his return home from Afghanistan, Reuter told some of the local teachers he’d always wanted a tour of Washington’s monuments lit up at night. They obliged, and he went home on top of the world, not really thinking money would follow the wave of support.

On Thursday, Education Minnesota Press Secretary Chris Williams called and asked if Reuter was sitting down. Within a day, the delegates had raised $13,600.

“I was glad I was sitting down,” Reuter said.