Anoka-Hennepin teachers vote April 17 whether to strike

After progress stalled in contract negotiations with District 11, Anoka-Hennepin teachers will vote April 17 whether to go on strike.

Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota’s 80-member representative assembly called for the strike authorization vote after hearing the bargaining team’s recommendation to do so March 17.

All of the union’s nearly 3,000 members will have the opportunity to weigh in on a possible strike, casting their votes at the National Sports Center in Blaine April 17.

If a majority of the membership votes “yes,” the AHEM Executive Board can call for a strike at any time.

AHEM has not called for a strike authorization vote since 2002. Teachers last went on strike in 1981.

District 11 leaders also met March 17 to plan for the event that teachers do stage a walkout. There are standard measures the district takes when a strike is a very real possibility, according to Tom Heidemann, school board chairman. He could not provide details at this time.

If AHEM’s executive board calls for teachers to strike, it must inform the district of its decision before entering a 10-day “cooling off period.” After that, a strike could officially be underway.

Under the prescribed timeline, the earliest teachers would walk out of their classrooms is April 29. At that time, six weeks of classes remain on the calendar this school year.

“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 points of contention center around compensation, health insurance and changes to the salary schedule that would most greatly impact young teachers.

Both sides agreed that progress was made during mediation Feb. 27 and flatlined March 12.

After mediation Feb. 27, 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,” Heidemann said. But that hope dissipated after last week’s mediation session, he added.

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.”

The school board called for a special meeting with AHEM negotiators in January. “We felt like they still didn’t understand the finances and the realities we’re dealing with,” Heidemann said. But union negotiators declined to meet with the board, he said.

None of the board members have attended any of the 12 regular bargaining sessions or four mediation sessions in person.

A fifth mediation session is scheduled for March 27. According to a statement from the district March 19, members of the school board will be present.

The board’s presence or lack thereof at negotiations isn’t “the real issue that’s keeping this contract from being settled,” according to Superintendent Dennis Carlson. It’s money, he said. “It always is.”

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 Mary Olson, communication and public relations director for the district, but expenses in Anoka-Hennepin increase approximately $13 million each year. So, the district is facing a projected $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.

“We’ve been trying really hard to find a compromise that removes all the uncertainty in the budget for next year while being fair to both our newest teachers and most experienced members, but for our negotiators, it sure seems like the district doesn’t feel any urgency to get this done,” Blaha said in a message to union members.

“Yes, we have an urgency,” Heidemann said, “but we need to be realistic with what’s affordable.”

Olivia Koester is at [email protected]