by Sarah Squires
It was 2010, and the Winona Area Public School (WAPS) Board had been embroiled in a contract dispute with the WAPS teachers union for months. The state was searching for a solution to a $1.2 billion deficit; education leaders anticipated that the deficit would mean cuts for public schools.
WAPS board members knew the district needed to pass an operational referendum to pay the bills. There was no money, they said, for the raises the teachers union wanted.
The 2010 WAPS Board members met in closed session to talk negotiation strategy. While the doors were closed to those negotiation talks in 2010, following the contract settlement, audio recordings of those private meetings become public under state law. In late 2013, just as the newest round of WAPS union contract negotiations began, the Winona Post reviewed the audio tapes of the three closed negotiation strategy meetings that the district had held.
At the time, other WAPS unions had settled, but talks with the teachers union had stalled and the district had called in a mediator to help move the negotiation forward.
Teachers could, WAPS attorney Gloria Olsen told the board during a closed meeting in 2010, "start what they call a 'work to rule,' where they don't do anything extra. They all come into work together at the last minute, leave together as soon as they can at the end of the day… [There] may be picketing, all that stuff. They could come to your board meetings, they could call you, they could make life unpleasant for you with emails, etc. The other thing they could do is strike."
The 2010 divide
Back in 2010, the state of Minnesota still had a law on the books that fined districts that did not settle contracts by January 15 of a negotiation year. WAPS board members met in mid-January, just after failing to meet the deadline, facing a $100,000 fine. Olsen told the board it should stop talks altogether and focus on school closure and budget reductions. Board members feared the strained negotiations process was hindering the chance that any referendum would pass.
"Maybe the best thing for the board to do is ignore the teachers union for awhile," Olsen recommended, while some board members said they wanted to ensure that communication remained open. Board members discussed offering a "hard freeze" proposal, or wait and offer none at all.
"If you [make another offer], I think you should not call the mediator and have another mediation session. I don't think you would need to meet with the teachers at all, because I think their strategy has been to wear the board members who are on the [negotiation] committee down," said Olsen. "I don't think we should allow them to do that anymore.
"No matter who the public portrays as the bad guy, we all lose. We all lose PR. So maybe it's time to divert the attention" to why we need a referendum, she said, adding that even if the teachers do not receive "an additional dime," the district "still needs that money."
Paul Durand, superintendent at the time, said he felt the passage of an operational referendum had grown unlikely over the strain. "I would have said [there was] a 50/50 chance that we could pass [a referendum] before the vote," he explained. "Now I think it's 80/20, or 90/10. Even some of our best supporters are madder than hornets."
"What are they mad about?" asked Olsen.
"What are they mad about? They're mad that people are losing their jobs, that people are losing benefits, that people are being furloughed, that people are being cut back, outside the school district and inside the school district. All of our other employee bargaining units have stepped up to be a part of the solution, and people are not happy," Durand answered. "Our cooks are not happy, our maintenance people aren't happy, our clerical staff isn't happy. When [teachers] wear their red shirts and run around the district, it angers people."
Olsen told the board that the last teacher strike — in the Crosby-Ironton district —had come about because many of the teachers were near retirement age, a situation similar to Winona. Crosby-Ironton teachers had wanted a strike for 30 years, she told board members, but "Overall, I don't think the Winona teachers could successfully mount a strike. I just don't think Education Minnesota [the state educators union] would support it." However, Olsen told the board that if Winona teachers did vote to strike, she was ready. "I've got the strike plan, the draft strike plan in my office," she told the 2010 board. "I could ship it up to you and you guys could start working on it."
"The gorilla that's out there," said Durand, "[is that] you have a referendum, and you've got the whole community watching to see what happens, what you do with negotiations and the amount of money that you give in negotiations. If you settle before the referendum, at least you can show [where] the money's going. If you wait until after that, people will say you're going to take that referendum money and pour it all into salaries."
Today, there are some similarities to the 2010 negotiations process: the district is planning to ask voters for a referendum, one union has successfully negotiated a contract, but the teachers union has publicly agreed on little more than the correction of typos within the contract. But current superintendent Scott Hannon, who will retire at the end of the school year, said relationships have improved greatly.
"I was a teacher when we struck [in 1975]," Hannon recalled of the last time WAPS teachers left school over a contract dispute. "I remember the acrimony at the time. It wasn't good for the community." Today, there is a "real openness" to the negotiations process and relationships with union leaders, Hannon said.
The district's negotiation committee has met with the teachers union representatives once, six months ago. Hannon, along with Education Minnesota representative Jeff Hyma, said the process was likely taking longer because new legislation lifted the penalty imposed upon districts that were unable to settle contracts by the former January 15 deadline.
This time around, an increase in state education funding has helped stabilize district coffers, but how far those dollars will go will depend on enrollment figures and union contract settlements. With employee salaries and benefits accounting for more than 70 percent of the district's general fund expenses, and with district reserves tapped in recent years to cover budgetary gaps, negotiations will play a large role in WAPS finances on the horizon.