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Minnesota school districts preparing for pay freezes

As Minnesota school districts gear up for salary negotiations this summer, "pay freeze" is shaping up to be a catch phrase.

In Breckenridge, the teachers group already has accepted a so-called "soft freeze," which means educators get seniority increases but no state's largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, have called educator pay freezes counterproductive.

For Minnesota districts dealing with flat state funding and a delay in payments, the freezes are a tricky proposition. As Uselman put it, "You cost-of-living pay hike. The move, a first for the district in recent memory, helped significantly reduce the number of teachers whose hours were trimmed in district cost-cutting.

Meanwhile, a number of area administrators opted to forego pay increases or, in the case of Perham-Dent Superintendent Tamara Uselman, volunteered to take a pay cut.

A high-profile champion of pay freezes for public employees is, of course, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who urged districts this spring to pursue them as a way of dodging layoffs. But others, such as Tom Dooher, the president of the want to compensate your employees for the valuable work they do, but at the same time, you don't want to break the district."

Stacy Busta, the head of the Breckenridge teachers union, said the group brought the soft freeze idea to the negotiating table. The district was slated to cut the hours of 17 teachers as part of $500,000 worth of budget reductions. The two-year soft freeze arrangement helped reduce that number to five teachers, or the full-time equivalent of 2.9 positions.

"There was no animosity," said Warren Schmidt, the district's interim superintendent. "Everybody came to the table with a positive attitude, and we worked it out."

Breckenridge teachers see an average pay increase of 1.8 percent as they move up seniority steps.

Busta said teachers had concerns about mounting health insurance premiums and cost of living, but roughly two-thirds supported the freeze in a vote: "I think our teachers are really to be commended for understanding the situation our district and the state of Minnesota are in," Busta said.

The district is still negotiating a contract for Schmidt, who is slated to stay on another year, as well as for a couple of other administrators.

"If we were to see them accept any sort of substantial increase in their salaries," Busta said, "some teachers would be pretty upset."

Most area districts are just heading into negotiations, and many, including Moorhead, are reticent about what's on the table.

But in Lake Park-Audubon, Superintendent Dale Hogie is upfront about the district's intention to negotiate a freeze, including of seniority raises. Hogie and the district's two principals asked to forego 2 to 2.5 percent raises built into their contracts.

Hogie, whose district cut almost $300,000 from its budget, said he expects teachers will come to negotiations with an open mind: "I think they're confident we're not hiding a stash of cash that will suddenly appear. When we tell them there's no money, they believe that."

Andrew Schwan, the lead negotiator for LP-A's teachers group, said teachers haven't met to discuss the pay freeze proposal. But he noted a freeze would be a sacrifice: "As a group we lose money as our premiums go up. It's a tough situation both for the teachers and the district."

In Perham-Dent, Uselman, the superintendent, opted for a 3 percent pay cut as her early childhood coordinator and director of custodial services accepted freezes. She said her decision seemed obvious after the layoffs of a half-dozen employees this spring.

"Our district is under duress financially, so it's difficult for me to consider a raise," she said. "It's difficult to cut jobs without feeling a bit of the pain."

She said a pay freeze will definitely be on the table in negotiations with teachers.

The district, which failed to pass a $695-per-pupil operating levy last year, will try again in November. Based on community input, the district will ask taxpayers to chip in for five rather than 10 years.

Next door in Frazee-Vergas, the district froze salaries right before passing a levy referendum on the fifth try in 2007. Teachers took a hard freeze that year and a soft freeze the year after. Superintendent Deron Stender hasn't gotten a raise in three years.

In a Star Tribune opinion piece, Dooher, the teachers union president, warned that pay freezes make attracting and retaining quality teachers harder at a time when 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years.

"Teachers and other public servants," he wrote, "should not have to bear the burden of fixing the state's budget problems on their own."