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Surprises turn positive for Winona teacher and reservist Matt Reuter

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?

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.

“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.  

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/10/2012 - 10:02 am.


    Good for him. Good for them. Good for Governor Dayton.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/10/2012 - 10:38 am.

    Lost in the spin

    The piece says “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.” From this, it appears that Mr. Reuter received a payment for the difference between his earnings while deployed and what he would have earned as a teacher if he hadn’t been deployed. That differential payment was reduced by the costs incurred by the district due to his deployment. He was not, then, faced with a bill on his return but simply received less than he would have had he been deployed before 2004.

    On its face, this is not unreasonable. Mr. Reuter presumably enlisted in the Reserve voluntarily, was paid for his service before, during and after his deployment and is earning retirement credits in both his occupations. I assume that he was not required to share either stream of income with either of his employers.

    If our military personnel are not adequately compensated, then seeing that they are is a federal obligation, not a state obligation. In fact, one could argue that state subsidies of this type help perpetuate military payroll inequities.

    Reasonable minds can disagree over the existence or continuation of the differential pay laws and their modification. But it strikes me as over the line to lead by saying that Mr. Reuter was presented a bill for the cost of his replacement or required to “finance his own sub”. As he noted himself, the additional funds he received were “Not what [he] expected at all.”

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 07/10/2012 - 02:00 pm.

    Actually, James

    If the cost of paying Reuter’s sub had exceeded his pay differential, he would have owed the school district money.

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/10/2012 - 05:06 pm.

    So what

    Mr. Hamilton, what’s your obsession over thee particulars of the statue? So what is his pay were merely reduced? No one else but teachers go through this. Anyone else deployed would get his job back and not be asked to pay for the replacement. Why is that so hard to understand? I know people on the right hate teachers, but come on.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/11/2012 - 12:42 am.

      I’m hardly on the right, sir.

      My “obsession” is simply this. The law in question actually provides teachers with a substantial benefit – if they make less while deployed than they earn while working for a municipality or school district, the school district is required by state law to pay them the difference. The 2004 amendment reduced that benefit by permitting school districts to offset the differential pay by the costs they incur in replacing the teacher while on leave. Ms. Hawkin’s article implied that teachers were billed for the cost of their replacements, which clearly is not the case. Moreover, Ms. Hawkins then claimed that teachers would be obliged to pay more than the differential pay they would otherwise be due if the cost of hiring a replacement exceeded the differential pay to which they were entitled. I found this assertion quite incredible and asked for a citation to the applicable law. My own efforts led me to the law and article to which for which I provided links, neither of which supports Ms. Hawkin’s assertion. If there is law supporting Ms. Hawkin’s claim, then I’d like to see it, not least because I’d like to see anything of the sort repealed in the next session. As I wrote earlier, reasonable minds can differ about whether schools should be compelled to pay this differential at all or whether districts should be permitted to offset the differential by an amount equal to the cost of obtaining a substitute. I doubt very much that any person, reasonable or otherwise, would find a law requiring a deployed teacher to pay for his or her replacement out of his or her own pocket.

      The pay differential provided for by the statute is a pretty remarkable benefit, one I don’t believe is matched anywhere in the private sector. Indeed, despite federal laws governing the re-employment of returning veterans, thousands find themselves unable to work. Ms. Hawkin’s article presented the law in a manner which I believed and continue to believe was erroneous and biased. Her later, to date unsubstantiated, assertion and my own research reinforced that belief.

      If she is correct, she will have my apologies. If she learns that she is not, then I trust that she will correct her earlier statement.

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