With a new levy secured, District #622 turns its back on union workers

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher speaks at the rally for union workers in ISD #622.

When the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board needed help building public support for its operating levy last fall, it reached out to the teachers’ union and other employee bargaining units.

The district’s union workers made thousands of phone calls, knocked doors and provided the force behind a levy campaign that won support from 70 percent of voters.

But if those union workers thought their work on behalf of the district’s levy campaign would help advance negotiations between their seven bargaining units and the school board, they were sorely mistaken.

Those negotiations have dragged on for more than one year, and they show little signs of reaching a settlement, according to workers who rallied outside a school board meeting in North St. Paul April 17.

“We spent last fall out working for the school district, helping pass their levy. The levy passed successfully, and now we’re like the black sheep of the family,” said Dennis Fendt, a teacher in the NSPMO district. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Teachers in the district, Fendt said, are working under terms of the contract from the 2010-11 school year. They have received no cost-of-living raises, but the contribution they must make to their health insurance plan has increased by 4 percent.

Fendt said the school board is dragging its feet despite “sitting on the fattest fund balance I’ve ever seen in the history of ISD #622. They have $23-plus million that, apparently, they don’t think is worth using on employees.”

Fed-up teachers and other union employees are starting to ramp up the public pressure on the district, and they are reaching out to their allies in the labor community to help.

Bobby Kasper, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, told workers at the rally that he sent a letter to school board members, warning them that their unwillingness to negotiate fair contracts jeopardizes labor support for future levy referendums.

“It’s funny how we were all on the same side of the table when it came down to the levy,” Kasper said. “Now we’re looking at 276 days without a contract. It’s time for the school board to wake up. They need to get behind you.”

ISD #622 isn’t the only school district dragging out contract negotiations this year. The number has skyrocketed as a result of the Legislature’s decision last year to eliminate the Jan. 15 deadline for districts to settle contracts with their teachers’ unions – or face a $25-per-pupil cut in funding.

“We’re seeing this more and more,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide educators’ union. “We still have over 30 percent of our contracts not settled. That doesn’t help the state on planning, and it doesn’t help the school community plan what kind of programs they can offer either.”

Dooher and other union leaders at the rally urged teachers and other workers in the district to continue standing together – a message, Fendt said, NSPMO workers are taking to heart.

“This isn’t only about teachers,” he said. “This is about custodians, this is about bus drivers, this is about paraprofessionals, this is about education assistants, this is about clericals, this is about food service, this is about every union employee in District 622.”

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