With a midnight deadline looming, officials of the Minneapolis Public Schools say they have given up hope of reaching a contract with district teachers.
Tom Madden, the chairman of the Minneapolis School Board, and outgoing Superintendent William Green in a statement to the community said that talks with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers have broken down, meaning the already financially strapped district faces an $800,000 fine. Districts that have not reached contract agreements with their teachers by midnight face a $25 per-student fine by the state.
As of Thursday, roughly a third of the state’s 342 school districts had not reached contract settlements with their teachers.
But no situation was more grim than in Minneapolis, where it appears talks broke down a week ago when the district made its “final”offer to the teachers’ union.
“Unfortunately, our offer was rejected by MFT without a counter-proposal,” Madden wrote in his two-page memo.
Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Teachers Union, denies that claim. She said in an interview this morning that the union kept coming back to the district with proposals throughout the weekend and as late as Tuesday. After that, she said, it would have been impossible to get an offer out to the district’s teachers for a ratification vote.
Nordgren said that the teachers offered what she described as a “soft freeze” on wages, meaning a zero percent increase on base salaries for two years. Additionally, she said, the union offered to accept other changes in contract language that the district wanted and “a moratorium on some benefits that equaled $3 million” in savings for the district.
“They [the district] over-reached,” she said. What it described as its final offer last week “was insulting.”
For years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been critical of school districts for yielding too much in negotiations with teachers.
But Nordgren says that rhetoric simply isn’t truthful — at least in regards to Minneapolis teachers.
She said that salaries and benefits to Minneapolis teachers amount to about 36 percent of the district’s entire budget, a figure that’s down from 43 percent six years ago.
That decrease, she said, is in addition to the loss of 2,000 jobs, an increase in hours worked, increases in class sizes and increases in costs borne by teachers in such areas as health insurance premiums.
“We know we have to work with what the district has,” Nordgren said, “but we’re not missionaries. We do expect to be paid.”
In their message, Madden and Green said:
“We have maintained a commitment to preserving teaching positions and to providing as much stability as possible for our classrooms, our teacher teams and our schools. Throughout negotiations, the two parties made significant progress in identifying the reforms that would be necessary to move the district’s academic agenda forward.
“However, the distrct and MFT are still too far apart on money to reach a final agreement. Simply put, the district cannot meet expectations for substantial increases tied to base pay, without serious impacting the classroom and threatening our longer-term financial stability. We have been clear since July 2009 about the financial position of the district.”
The difficulties in Minneapolis are in direct contrast to negotiations in St. Paul, where the union and the district reached a tentative agreement in December. That agreement was ratified by teachers on Tuesday and approved by the school board on Wednesday.
“Our ink is drying on our contract,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “The minneapolis situation makes me very sad — and a bit angry at their district.”
St. Paul teachers received a 1 percent wage increase and preserved step and lane increases (which are based on such things as years of experience and advanced degrees and training).
St. Paul teachers also received a freeze on health care contributions until next January, when teachers will pay an additional $20 per month for health insurance.
There are, of course, many differences between the contracts of the two districts.
And one other thing created a huge difference in the negotiations: Minneapolis teachers entered talks for a new contract in a state of mistrust.
In their previous contract, they had agreed to a number of outcome-based incentives, inspired by the union even before Gov. Pawlenty came forward with his Q-Comp program for districts and teachers.
The teachers claim that the district reneged on those promises, costing district teachers $4.6 million.
“The teachers were livid,” said Nordgren of the payments she said teachers expected.
In their message, Madden and Green, deny the charge that teachers didn’t received promised payments. Or at least denies part of the charge.
“All teachers who assumed leadership roles or additional professional responsibilities in 2008-2009 and who applied for compensation through [the program] have received lump sum payments in recognition of that work.”
But in the message, Madden and Green did say that teachers who expected payments based on additional training had not received payments “pending the outcome of negotiations.”
Madden and Green also said that to meet teacher demands, the district would have to cut 100 to 140 teaching positions, increase classroom size and tap into the district’s “vulnerable reserve fund to meet these obligations.”
They said the district already has reduced “central office budgets by as much as 15 percent in 2009-2010 and have asked the same departments to submit their budgets assuming an additional 5 percent reduction for 2010-2011.”
Nordgren said teachers aren’t without empathy in the negotiations. The union president said one of the big financial problems the district faces is caused by federal and state underfunded mandates regarding special education. Currently, she said, the district is shorted by about $28 million in underfunding from the feds and state on special ed.
“We will keep working on coming to a solution,” she said.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.
The original story misstated the authors of the school district message and the intended audience. The message, for public release, was from both Tom Madden, the chairman of the Minneapolis School Board, and outgoing Superintendent William Green.