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An unusually large number of Minnesota school districts are heading into the end of the year still trying to reach contracts with their teachers unions.

The protracted negotiations are largely driven by conversations about inflation and the rising cost of health care benefits amid an increase in state funding for schools. Unions want major boosts in pay while districts say they need money to cover new state mandates including summer unemployment insurance for hourly workers.

As of Dec. 6, nearly 100 of the state's 330 school districts have settled contracts with their teachers unions, Education Minnesota spokesman Chris Williams said. At this time in 2021, more than 150 had settled. The state's two largest school districts — Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul — are entering mediation with their teachers unions.

The Anoka-Hennepin teachers union and district remain about $36 million apart in salary negotiations alone. In St. Paul, district officials say the overall gulf is $94 million.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said he expected a longer-than-usual bargaining season after the Legislature allowed unions to bargain over staffing ratios and testing policies.

"Those used to be considered managerial rights, which have now been inserted into the collective bargaining process," Croonquist said. "That certainly adds another layer into negotiations."

Many districts are also paying more for some services than they did before the pandemic, he said. Contracts with bus companies have been more expensive due to gas prices. Schools also had to increase pay for employees such as custodians and cafeteria workers to compete with businesses offering higher wages amid record low unemployment.

"Districts have had to respond to the market and increase salaries just to decrease vacant positions," Croonquist said.

The protracted negotiations across many districts mirror the larger labor movement that's taken hold across the country as nearly 1,000 employee unions across several industries have either held strikes or protests this year, according to a tally by Cornell University.

Teachers in Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore., went on strike earlier this year. Minneapolis Public Schools, where educators picketed for three weeks in 2022, has a bargaining session with its teachers union scheduled for Monday.

Still, several Minnesota districts, including Aitkin, Grand Meadow, Mounds View, Randolph and Walker, have already approved new contracts with their teachers unions.

Johnny Villarreal, commissioner of the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, said the agency has received 33 petitions for mediation between school districts and teachers unions this year. So far, five of them have settled.

Williams said parents shouldn't worry when they hear a union has filed for mediation.

"Mediation is fairly common," Williams said. "Strikes are fairly rare."

Teachers rally, demonstrate in Anoka-Hennepin

Teachers in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, gathered before Monday's school board meeting. Union leaders led chants as educators wearing red waved signs on the sidewalk in front of district headquarters in Anoka.

The rally followed weeks of what union leaders have dubbed Wednesday Walkouts. Once a week, teachers have refused to volunteer to advise clubs or run other after-school programs to protest what they say are insufficient wage proposals.

Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota wants an 18% boost in classroom teacher pay. The district has countered with an increase of 9%. Negotiations have been tense since the district's initial offer of a 2% increase over two years.

"Many of our teachers felt that it was insulting," said John Wolhaupter, a teaching and learning specialist who serves as the union's lead negotiator.

He and other union leaders worry that the district's offers for first-year educators, in particular, will make it hard to recruit and retain young teachers and add to workloads.

Union negotiators filed for a mediator after they said eight bargaining sessions yielded little progress.

"That was a hard place to come back from," Wolhaupter said.

District officials say they've provided funding for up to 96 special education teachers and 10 educators for students who speak English as a second language to address heavy workloads.

They add that they're already stretching their budget forecast, which allowed for a 5% increase in teacher salaries.

"The district is committed to the goal of improving terms and conditions for employees while working within tight budget parameters to maintain financial and operational stability for the district," district spokesman Jim Skelly said.

State funding increases, as do mandates

District officials in other parts of the state say they're also struggling to settle contracts as educators seek a share of new state funding.

Minnesota lawmakers approved $2.2 billion in new spending during the last session, but much of it is tied up in new mandates, including a revamp of reading instruction and unemployment insurance for employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

Some administrators also say they're facing uncertainty for budget forecasts beyond this year.

Bob Indihar, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, noted that the Legislature only guaranteed state funding for free school meals and unemployment insurance through July 2026.

"The perception was that districts are now flush with money after the last session, which is not accurate," Indihar said.

Williams said district officials and educators can lobby for more state funding in the future, but the contracts need to be resolved first.

"The Legislature has been responsive to education," Williams said. "Let's deal with the thing we've got right in front of us right now."