The Minnesota state Senate’s recent introduction of a bill that would freeze salaries for teachers and public school employees is leaving the Richfield School Board caught in the middle between making its budgets and keeping good relationships with its teachers.
The bill so-named Senate File 56 aims to provide budget relief to school districts across Minnesota by freezing workers’ salaries between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2013. The bill was introduced by Republican legislators Jan. 18 and quickly drew the attention of educators and parents in Richfield, as the school board met for its regular meeting that evening.
“It would hurt relationships in every district in the entire state,” Superintendent Bob Slotterback told Patch. “I think from a teaching perspective, they would be offended by the Legislature coming in and making a rule like this.”
While those being promoted would remain eligible for pay increases, if passed, the legislation would prohibit raises for all other employees; including cost-of-living increases and pay raises related to an employee’s education and seniority. It would also prohibit retroactive pay increases after law's expiration in 2013 and makes it illegal for public or charter school employees to strike in response.
While the district doesn’t want to freeze salaries, the truth is that it would help the district immensely. Both Slotterback and Michael Schwartz, business manager for Richfield Public Schools, said the district would likely save roughly $700,000 in the first year of the freeze.
Finding more money is a constant worry for the school board, as it also voted to lower its reserve funds from a targeted 4 percent to 2.5 percent for 2012.
Acknowledging that, from a purely fiscal perspective, the freeze would be good for Richfield Public Schools, Slotterback was particularly concerned about the legislation’s potential effect on relationships between teachers and school districts.
For years the district has maintained great working relationships with its employees, according to Slotterback, and while he thought teachers were “sophisticated enough” not to blame the district, nonetheless he was still concerned about its impact.
Schwartz added that staff morale was also a huge concern.
“How would you feel knowing that for the next two years you weren’t getting any more money or the opportunity to get more money?”
In addition, Sen. Ken Kelash (D-63), who represents Richfield, expressed concern over the bill’s impact on local school districts’ ability to directly negotiate with their teachers.
“[When] teachers and unions get together with management, [they] find creative solutions to the issues that are there,” Kelash said. “Blanket freezes don’t accomplish much of anything. The Republican legislators bringing [the bill] on think they’re smarter than the people that are in the school itself.”
Regardless of whether or not the bill is passed, the district still faces a $400,000 budget deficit in 2012 and with roughly 85 percent of the district’s budget currently slated for personnel costs, cuts will need to come from somewhere.
“With [only] 15 to 17 percent of our budget that doesn’t go to teachers, there’s nothing else to cut,” Slotterback stated. “You can’t do any more heat reduction, let the roofs go [unrepaired] any longer, make kids walk any further to bus stops than they already do.”
Administrators refused to identify any specific targets in the district, but warned that budget reductions would almost certainly come at the expense of jobs.
However, Schwartz added, “A lot of people think this should’ve happened a long time ago. It would allow us to not cut as many people.”
Currently, the school board is trying to come to a consensus regarding the bill, according to Tom Flood, a director of the Richfield school board whose three children attended district schools. Flood said there was little the board could do if the law was passed, but he tentatively supported it.
“My gut instincts would be to hold the line and grow the district,” he said. “I’m interested in quality and great test scores … If you can stabilize your costs and increase your enrollment, you’ll have greater operating capital.”
Citing a lack of new education money coming from the state and the roughly $6.2 billion budget deficit faced by Minnesota, Flood acknowledged that the unions and teachers are generally realistic about fiscal pressures facing the district.
“If we didn’t have [the deficit] I wouldn’t be supportive of this freeze,” he said. “But for two years, I’d like to get us out of this mess.”
While the bill is in its earliest stages, Slotterback said it was likely to pass with some modification in the near future. Richfield Patch will continue to follow this issue in the coming weeks.