The Crosby-Ironton School Board's declaration Wednesday of an impasse in negotiations with the teachers' union doesn't rule out future talks but indicates there'll be no negotiations in the foreseeable future, board chair Scott Kile said Wednesday.
Speaking after a sleepless night in which negotiations broke off at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Kile said the long-term implication of the board's impasse declaration is that it can now unilaterally declare terms of employment for teachers. If it makes such a declaration, Kile said, striking teachers who return to work would be subject to those terms, he said.
"This is not a step we are going to pursue right away," Kile said. "It is an enormous step. The way I see it, it's a tool. I don't think there's a whole lot of history of doing that. We're in a very unique situation."
An attorney for Education Minnesota said Wednesday morning the school district didn't have the authority to declare an impasse. Harley Ogata, general counsel for Education Minnesota, said the declaration of an impasse was a deliberate deception intended to misinform the public and confuse the issues.
"Under a Minnesota Supreme Court decision, the only entity that has the ability to declare an impasse is the state-appointed mediator," Ogata said in a news release.
Steve Hoffmeyer, deputy commissioner of the state Bureau of Mediation Services, said the union's contention is incorrect. He said an employer can declare an impasse and the union has a right to challenge that in district court.
Gloria Olsen, the school board's attorney, said it is the board's legal opinion that it now has the right to unilaterally implement revised wages scales. She said any party can bring suit against another but the board does have the right to declare an impasse in negotiations. The other issue, she said, would be whether the board has the right to unilaterally set terms and conditions for employment of teachers, and the school district firmly believes it has that right.
"The board and the administration are very, very frustrated," Olsen said. "Their priority is to get children back in school."
John Budd, an expert in labor relations at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, agreed either side could declare an impasse if it could prove the other side was not negotiating in good faith.
He said that doesn't mean either side has to compromise too much. "There is a difference between lack of good-faith bargaining, which is illegal, and hard bargaining, which is legal," he said.
If impasse declaration proceeds, the district would have the right to hire teachers under the terms of the latest offer it made during contract negotiations. "They will be able to say: Anybody who wants to teach third grade, these are the terms of employment."
There's one more wrinkle in the process, he said. Minnesota has a law that bars hiring permanent replacements for striking teachers. "No other state in the country does that, I believe," he said.
As a result, he said there was little job security for the replacement teachers. "My interpretation would be that they would essentially have to let go of the replacements to make room for teachers that want to come back," he said.
Kile, the board chair, said a school board meeting is tentatively planned for Monday but the time and location have not yet been set. Portions of the meeting dealing with strike negotiation would be closed, he said.
The key issue, Kile said, is future retirees' health insurance. He said the school district has offered $4.1 million for that purpose for the 65 most senior teachers while the union is asking for $7.25 million for the same 65 teachers. The difference, he said, is $3 million the district does not have.
In a news release the school district said this retiree health insurance offer breaks down to $90,000 each for 26 of the teachers and $46,500 each for 39 of the teachers.
"The district's approach has been for an affordable settlement within the confines of the district's financial situation," Kile said.
The school district's news release stated its proposal for a 2003-2005 contract and a 2005-2007 contract added up to a 14.6 percent increase for both contracts (including step increases, lane increases and salary schedule increases).
The teachers' proposal, the news release said, added up to an 18.4 percent hike for the two contracts (including step increases, lane increases and salary schedule increases).
The district's proposal for health insurance coverage for active teachers, the news release said, was full single insurance for all four years of the two contracts and an increase from $7,650 for the 2003-20005 period to $8,350 for the 2005-2007 period.
The school district news release stated the teachers' proposal for health insurance for active teachers includes an increase from $7,650 for the 2003-2004 contract to $8,800 for the 2004-2005 contract and to $9,500 for the 2005-2007 contract.
In addition, the school district statement said the district is proposing no student make-up days while the teachers are proposing 17 make-up days that would cost approximately $550,000 for 2005-2007.
Meanwhile, Kile said, juniors and seniors returned to school Wednesday and their return went smoothly. Kile said fifth-graders will be the next grade to return to school. Kindergarten through fourth-grade students returned to classes earlier.
Asked what effect the declaration of an impasse and the possibility the school board would unilaterally declare the terms of teachers' employment would have on striking teachers who returned, Kile said it has never been the school board's intention to break the union.
"They (the union) brought this on to themselves," he said. "They will have to pay the price for the choices they made. It remains the school board's top priority to return the students to the classroom, with or without the strike."
Kile said if a settlement is reached with the union then the board would hope to bring all the teachers back to the classroom.
(This story contains information compiled by The Associated Press.)
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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