Building improvements, declining enrollment, fluctuating state and federal funding — these are some of the factors which shape public school budgets. They are continual topics at District 861 School Board meetings as school leaders grapple with the mounting need for budget reductions, expected to be $750,000 for the 2014-2015 school year and $450,000 the next.
But one of the largest future expenses for the district is simply "pencilled in" on financial spreadsheets for now, as school officials estimate how deep budget cuts must go. Contracts with all five of the district's unions will expire on June 30, and district leaders will begin preparing for negotiations in the coming weeks.
District 861 currently spends more than $31 million annually on employee salaries and benefits — over 70 percent of its annual general fund expenses. Because employee contract figures consume such a large percentage of the district's budget, the results of the two-year contract settlement will have an enormous impact the district's financial situation during a time when income is dropping and school leaders are eyeing another referendum in 2016.
The last time the district renewed employee contracts, it settled two, two-year contracts. The first provided for a 2.13 percent increase, and the second allotted a 3.99 percent jump. The increases accounted for approximately $1.2 million in extra annual expense.
Additionally, because the district and the union were unable to reach an agreement by January 2010, the state imposed a $100,000 fine, drawn from district coffers. Legislation has since removed the ability of the state to fine a district for failing to settle union contracts.
The process for settling employee contracts begins with meetings between the district's negotiating committee — including school board members and administrators — and union representatives. If either side declares an impasse has been reached during those bargaining sessions, a mediator from the state Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) is used to help resolve the disagreements.
Some districts in Minnesota rarely turn to mediation when negotiations reach a stalemate, but Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) contract talks have often used mediators after committee and union leaders fail to resolve contract disputes. WAPS Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell, who has overseen the district's contract negotiations over the last 15 years, said contract disputes have required the use of mediation about half of the time. Differences between district offers and union counteroffers in mediation sessions are often seven-figure disparities.
WAPS policy may leave public out of settlement
Last summer School Board members voted to change a district policy governing how meetings closed to the public should be handled, prohibiting the use of audio recorders during mediation sessions.
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) requires all closed meetings, except for those closed for attorney-client purposes, to be recorded. After an issue is settled, the public has the right to request those audio recordings to better track the activities of elected officials and the use of public funds.
Without those audio recordings, if WAPS officials enter into mediation over union contracts, members of the public will have little ability to track the way those multi-million dollar agreements are settled.
"I don't believe that the School Board's decision to discontinue recording mediation sessions is lawful," explained Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney and OML expert Mark Anfinson. The district's new policy cites Minnesota Rules Chapter 5510 as a reason the audio recording provision of the law should not apply, but Anfinson said that state administrative rules cannot trump state law.
Further, Anfinson explained the importance of public access to audio recordings of closed meetings. The prospect of being recorded, he said, can help keep public officials on their toes when it comes to talks about topics that are illegal to discuss behind closed doors. "I continue to believe the single most valuable addition to the OML [is] the recording requirement of closed meetings in deterring violations," he explained. "With that recorder going in a closed meeting, there's a greatly-reduced possibility that they'll talk about matters that are not specifically allowed."
The School Board changed its policy at the recommendation of the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) in August 2012. MSBA Director of Legal and Policy Services Cathy Miller said that the Minnesota Rules made the use of recording devices prohibited in closed mediation sessions, adding that mediators would refuse to mediate if a recording device were present.
"Someone is uncomfortable about the notion of making public these mediation sessions; I'm sure that's what's going on here," said Anfinson. "The behavior of [this] School Board just has a kind of long tradition of just running against the grain."
The School Board is expected to hold a closed meeting in May to discuss negotiation strategies. Following those talks, the negotiation committee is expected to begin meeting with union representatives.