Talk of a strike authorization vote is back on the table after a lack of progress in mediation with the district Wednesday, according to the Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota bargaining team.
“Our next step is to build some more urgency,” AHEM President Julie Blaha said.
The union’s negotiators will recommend to the larger representative assembly March 17 that members set a date for a strike authorization vote.
All of the union’s nearly 3,000 members would be able to vote on whether to initiate a strike at that time.
AHEM has not called for a strike authorization vote since 2002.
“This is not a decision that any of us take lightly,” Blaha said, but “we’re starting to run out of options.”
The district and AHEM began negotiating the teachers’ 2013-2015 contract in May.
The two parties entered mediation in January, which closes negotiations to members at large and the general public.
Both sides have declined to provide specifics of recent offers at the request of the mediator, but both agreed that progress was made during mediation Feb. 27 and stalled Wednesday.
Two weeks ago, AHEM postponed discussions of a strike authorization vote and suspended work to rule, a measure enacted in late January that had teachers stop all work outside of the duty day, the seven hours and 40 minutes during the school day when teachers are required to work by contract.
“The board was very hopeful that we were close to reaching a settlement,” said Tom Heidemann, school board chairman. But that hope dissipated after yesterday’s session, he said.
It’s problematic that school board members are not present during negotiations, Blaha said. “When the decision makers aren’t at the table, it’s hard to understand the problem, let alone solve it.”
Heidemann denies that the board isn’t “at the table.” Though he wasn’t physically present March 12, working at Honeywell all day, “to say that the school board is not involved is not true,” he said. “I was in constant contact with [Paul Cady, general counsel for the district and its lead negotiator] over the phone.”
But for Blaha, that isn’t enough. When district negotiators have to check in with the school board, it slows down the process, she said.
None of the board members have attended any of the 12 regular bargaining sessions or four mediation sessions in person.
“We remain committed to reaching a settlement and also [being] fiscally responsible,” said Mary Olson, director of communication and public relations for the district.
To give the teachers what they’re asking for at this point “will ultimately raise class sizes, increase teacher workload and have a negative impact on teachers’ working conditions,” according to Heidemann. The district worked hard the last five years to lower class sizes and decrease teacher workload, investing $4 million on initiatives and positions that do just that, he said. “The board is not willing to dismantle that [work].”
AHEM maintains that its requests are affordable for District 11 with increased funding from the Legislature and fat fund balances.
The district expects an additional $18.5 million from the Legislature over the next two years, according to Olson, but expenses in Anoka-Hennepin increase approximately $13 million each year. So, the district is facing a $7.5 million shortfall.
“We’re certainly not asking for anything more than we’re seeing across the state,” Blaha said.
Heidemann called the district’s recent offers “competitive with the metro area.”
Of the contracts tracked by Education Minnesota, 40 percent remain unsettled across the state. The average raise for teachers is 2 percent each year of the contract, not including increases for seniority or education.
At the time of publication, a fifth mediation session had not been scheduled.
Olivia Koester is at [email protected]