INTERNATIONAL FALLS (AP) -- Public school teachers walked picket lines here Friday, staging the first strike by teachers in Minnesota since educators in the same city struck for nearly a month 10 years ago.
"We'd rather be in the classroom," said Jill Katrin, a second-grade teacher. "We just want to settle this as soon as we can, and get back to the kids as soon as possible."
About 1,500 students attend International Falls schools.
Tom Kalar, president of Education Minnesota Local 331, said the union represents about 100 International Falls teachers who want pay that's in line with that of other northern Minnesota teachers.
Superintendent Percy Lingen said the two sides were still $200,000 apart on a package after a mediation session narrowed the gap on Tuesday, then talks broke down. No new talks were scheduled.
"If we take this settlement, we'll be losing money from what we made two years ago," said strike captain Deb Ciminski. "Because we're going into negotiations for the next (two-year) contract so soon, we have to get this one settled."
The teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year and are due to begin talks on their next contract in January.
They voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to authorize the strike, Kalar said. He also said the union would not accept binding arbitration.
According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, statewide teacher salary and benefit increases have averaged 4.79 percent for 2001-2002 and 4.83 percent for 2002-2003.
District officials said they had offered salary and benefit increases for 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 that totaled 9.79 percent. They contend teachers want a total increase of 12.07 percent. The teachers dispute the district's calculations. Kalar said they're asking for a 3.5 percent salary increase for 2001-2002 and 3 percent for 2002-2003.
Teacher salaries in the district range from $29,149 to $54,304, depending on years of experience and training, according to Education Minnesota.
In addition to classes being canceled, sports were put on hold. All scheduled games during the strike were canceled and will go on the record as forfeits, said Falls High Principal Gordy Dault. The forfeits will not be counted as losses for football and volleyball in Section 7 tournament seeding.
Although practices can't be held on school grounds, most teams expected to practice elsewhere.
The Bronco football team had been scheduled to play Proctor Friday night in a game that might have decided the conference championship.
"I really don't see why the teachers couldn't have waited at least a day or two until we had already played Proctor," said offensive lineman Jay Boyle, whose brother, Ty, also plays for the team.
The Boyles are sons of former school board member Susan Boyle, who resigned Thursday, saying she felt she was being targeted by teachers to put pressure on other board members to settle because of her sons' participation in football.
"And frankly, it was working," Susan Boyle said. "I feel the board is out there doing what is best for our community and its students."
Minnesota's last teachers strike was in 1992, when International Falls teachers were off the job from Feb. 14-March 10.
"Even though many of us were on strike in '92, I don't know if you're every really prepared," Kalar said.
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