by Amelia Wedemeyer
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) teachers union has filed for mediation after holding only one formal meeting with the district's negotiation committee earlier this fall, a meeting in which representatives did little more than agree to correct typos within the contract. This move could mean that the public will not be privy to the school board's efforts to reach a contract agreement with the union until negotiations are over.
WAPS Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell informed the School Board during its meeting Thursday night that the union had filed a request for mediation. “We will be meeting in April — we are ironing those dates out right now, perhaps the third week in April. I believe the 23rd is a tentative date at this point,” Blaisdell told the board about scheduling a time to begin mediation.
In filing for mediation, the WAPS teachers union is requesting to meet with the district’s Negotiations Committee and a state mediator, who has the ability to close mediation sessions to the public, to iron out a contract. WAPS is no stranger to contract mediation. In a 2013 interview, Blaisdell said that over the last 15 years, the union and district have sought the help of a mediator in settling teachers union contracts in roughly half of the contracts.
Prior to the union's declaration of a negotiations impasse, Blaisdell noted that scheduling conflicts had prevented teachers union representatives and the Negotiations Committee from meeting over the last five months. Additionally, changes to state law have also removed some of the urgency from negotiations: in the past, districts had until January 15 to settle contracts or face a $100,000 fine; today, there's no penalty for districts that haven't settled or negotiated by a given calendar date. Currently, WAPS teachers have been working without a new contract since last July. Employees work under the terms of the old contract until a new one is settled.
As for the rest of the state, roughly 73 percent of all public school districts within Minnesota that are tracked by Education Minnesota — the state educators’ union — have settled contracts with their respective teachers unions, leaving only 27 percent with unsettled contracts, according to Chris Williams of Education Minnesota.
Blaisdell could not be reached for comment Friday.