Senator seeks two-year wage freeze for educators

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Sen. Dave Thompson wants to see his two-year school district employee salary freeze bill hit the Senate floor as speedily as possible.

“My hope is it gets on the floor quickly, because these (school) districts need predictability,” said Thompson, a Republican from Lakeville.

“So let’s get this in front of the governor, and get a decision on it,” he said.
Thompson is part way to his goal.

A Senate education committee Jan. 25 advanced Thompson’s bill, which among other things would take away the penalty for school districts failing to complete teacher negotiations on time, and sent it to a finance committee.

Debate on the bill in committee was intense.

Don Sinner, president of Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, and science teacher in the Lakeville School District, depicted Thompson’s bill as hurting education.

Contract negotiations in Lakeville have never come close to the Jan. 15 deadline, Sinner said, and his own take-home pay in recent years has gone backwards.

Beyond this, the proposed salary freeze would probably drive younger, lower paid teachers out of the profession, Sinner argued.

Jan Alswager of Education Minnesota argued the legislation did nothing to really solve the state budget deficit and walked all over the concept of local control.

Matt Toburen of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose union represents school bus drivers, custodians and other school staff, said some school staff, such as custodians at North Branch, make as little as $10 an hour — some have no health care benefits, he said.

“Our members are making sacrifices,” Toburen said, questioning the wisdom of trying to deal with local school staff wages from the “50,000-foot level” in St. Paul.

Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she understood the idea of shared sacrifice, but indicated the burden wasn’t being extended to the wealthy.

“(It) just doesn’t seem right,” she said.

But Thompson’s bill had supporters.

Lakeville School Board Member Roz Peterson endorsed the legislation.

Charlie Kyte, of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, expressed hope that education committee Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, would “fight like a tiger” in the Senate Republican caucus for more education funding.

But Kyte depicted the association’s support of the bill as a bow to budgeting reality.

Thirty to 40 percent of Minnesota school superintendents have had their wages frozen, and Kyte explained.

And association members would be willing to do it again, he suggested.

Jay Reker, director of human services in the St. Francis School District, argued the legislation would help the school district keep its teachers on the job.

The school district realizes the state budget deficit will not allow for more school funding, Reker explained.

If just a 3 percent salary increase could be avoided, it would save St. Francis about $852,000 — an amount equal to the pay of about 10 teachers, he explained.

Still, the need for additional school funding is only delayed by the bill, Reker explained.

It doesn’t go away.

Education committee member Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, criticized Thompson’s bill as not really solving anything.

“Where’s your plan?” she asked of a budget solution.

But Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, argued the bill was not meant as an ultimate solution but rather a temporary measure.

It passed the committee on a 9-7 vote.

Thompson explained after the hearing he didn’t know how the vote might go, but was hopeful.

“My sense is, that in the light the fiscal problems our school districts are facing, it (the bill) makes so much sense, I was certainly optimistic,” he said.

Thompson said he had had a sit-down with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and others last week to discuss the legislation, but added the governor made no commitments.

No companion bill has yet advanced in the House.

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