Minnesota school districts negotiate new contracts with their certified teaching staff every two years, and this year the St. Michael-Albertville school district and its local teachers’ union have thus far failed to reach an agreement on the 2019-2021 contract. A mediation session last month failed to result in a compromise, and the parties will resume talks in the new year.
The new contract would have begun July 1 had the district and union reached an agreement. STMA teachers are currently working for the same pay and conditions agreed upon under their 2017-2019 contract.
Doug Birk, Director of Administrative Services for the St. Michael-Albertville school district, said some delay between successive two-year teaching contracts is common in public school collective bargaining. Once a consensus is reached, Birk said the new contract will make the teachers’ new pay and benefit schedule retroactive to July 1, 2019.
“At this time, over half of Minnesota school districts have not yet reached agreement on new terms for 2019-2021,” Birk said.
Bob Zahler, President of Education Minnesota’s Local #1994 Union for St. Michael-Albertville, said the two parties typically reach an agreement by late fall or early winter, though he said they didn’t finalize a contract for 2011-2013 until March of 2012. Zahler said the state used to fine districts who didn’t reach an agreement with certified staff by Jan. 15, but legislators repealed that law in 2011.
At Odds Over Salaries
Both sides say the negotiation process has been respectful, but Zahler said teacher salaries are the main sticking point. He said the union wants to bring its teacher salaries in line with comparable districts.
“Despite the fact that the teaching staff has surpassed the academic goals set by recent school boards, our compensation still lags far behind districts just a few miles away such as Elk River/Rogers or Osseo/Maple Grove,” he said. “We personally know teachers who live in this district but currently teach in other districts, who would be interested in teaching at STMA, but they would have to take a $5,000 to $10,000 per year cut in pay. That’s a lot of money over the course of a teaching career.”
Zahler said the union feels the district should tap into its savings account and offer a contract that prevents the salary gap from widening.
Though the school district will not comment on ongoing negotiations, district leaders did say at their most recent school board meeting that the district deficit spent $84,000 last fiscal year and plans to deficit spend $680,000 this fiscal year. Additionally, they may take $594,770 from the general fund to compensate for 2017 bond project cost overruns. The school board approved this fund transfer from the general fund to bond projects in Oct. 2017, but the funds haven’t yet been needed.
By the 2021-2022 school year, if current funding variables remain constant, Superintendent Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault said the district will fall below its current policy of maintaining 1.5 months of general fund expenditures in reserve.
Teachers Speak Out
STMA teachers filled the district’s board room at the Dec. 2 school board meeting to show support for the negotiation efforts, and two teachers spoke on behalf of their fellow teaching staff.
Dan Lefebvre, who has taught in the district for 31 years and has extensive family history with STMA schools, said district salaries cannot fall further behind local districts they continue to outperform. He said the district’s teachers are the biggest and greatest resource the district has, and that they make the biggest different in STMA students’ education.
“People want to open enroll here and move here for the arts, athletics, and academics,” he said. “And the people who make that go are the 450 members of Local #1994. That’s where we need to continue to put our resources when we have them, and I think the district has them.”
Brandi Merfeld, a third grade teacher, said she knows the school board and teachers are here for the same reason: to do what’s best for students. Merfeld recently completed a three-year stint as an instructional coach for STMA teachers, and she said she witnessed the entire teaching staff constantly going above and beyond for students. She said she’s seen counselors dealing with mental health issues daily, teachers subbing on their prep hour for weeks at a time due to substitute shortages, teachers using prep time to help students with academic or personal needs, and teachers coming in every weekend to catch up.
“It made me even more proud to live, work, and send my own children here,” she said. “We work hard, and we feel we are worth it. This year, we think we deserve better.”
The teachers’ union feels the district needs to maintain competitive salaries to hire and retain the talented, dedicated teachers they say have driven STMA to become the destination district it is today.
“We are proud of everything our district has accomplished in the past few years, but we’re worried about the future,” he said. “Our top candidates are declining offers here for teaching positions in other districts that pay more for the same work. As the statewide teacher shortage worsens, current teachers will also look for jobs in better-paying districts.”
Zahler said teachers will continue to advocate for equitable school funding at the state legislature, saying they believe funding equity is the best plan for the district’s continued success.