A Senate committee Monday heard testimony on a bill that would constrain the collective-bargaining process used by Minnesota’s public schools and their teachers, prohibiting negotiations while school is in session and mandating arbitration if the two sides are unable to reach agreement.
The bill, Senate File 208, also includes a provision that would reclassify public-school teachers as “essential employees,” making it illegal for them to go on strike.
Republicans on the Senate Committee on State Government Innovation and Veterans passed the bill by an 8-5, party-line vote, dismissing testimony against the measure from representatives of Education Minnesota, the statewide union of 70,000 educators.
Jim Smola, president of Dakota County United Educators and a teacher in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, told senators the bill would place artificial and unnecessary constraints on the collective-bargaining process, which has served his district well.
“This bill is an intrusion on local control and will undermine years of district and union collaboration, including collective bargaining,” Smola said. “Enacting this bill will not improve the education of one child in our district and, I believe, not one child in the state of Minnesota.”
Under current law school districts must negotiate collective-bargaining agreements with their teachers by Jan. 15. The state penalizes districts that fail to meet that deadline by reducing their state-formula funding by $25 per pupil.
It is a system, union leaders say, that has served Minnesota well. Since its implementation in 1995, there have been just three teacher strikes at public schools statewide.
A solution in search of a problem?
Senate File 208, co-authored by Republican Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, would limit negotiations to the three months preceding Sept. 1. If the two sides fail to reach agreement, an arbitrator from the Bureau of Mediation Services would determine the contract terms.
The bill’s supporters, including the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, which represents about 350 superintendents statewide, claim the measure would shield students from the confrontational nature of collective bargaining, including work stoppages.
MASA Director Charlie Kyte told the committee superintendents were directly involved in crafting the legislation, which they see as critical to improving the “proficiency and professionalism” of labor-management relationships in their districts.
Senate File 208 “would remove any kind of tension from the school teaching day and the school year, and it would be a positive change for our schools and our teachers,” Kyte said. “I don’t think it would necessarily change the balance of who ‘wins or loses’ in these negotiations, it would simply change the process.”
Attack on collective bargaining
Opponents, meanwhile, said the bill would unnecessarily rush local efforts to work collaboratively on labor contracts.
Because districts do not receive their final budget information – critical to collective bargaining – until after the Legislature finishes its work, teachers could be left with as little as six weeks to negotiate a contract before the deadline for arbitration.
DFLers on the committee wondered whether mandating final arbitration on Sept. 1 – and stripping teachers of the right to strike – would encourage district administrators to drag their feet in negotiations, rather than meet teachers halfway.
“It seems like you’re cutting the legs off of collective bargaining,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights.
Smola said the bill would have a negative effect on the teachers’ morale and further hamper efforts to attract quality teachers to Minnesota’s public schools.
“People (want to) take pride in where they are employed and look forward to going to work,” Smola said. “This bill will serve to undermine morale by artificially dragging out or stalling the negotiations process.”
Both Republicans and DFLers said they expect more debate on Senate File 208 when it comes before the Education Committee.