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State deadline on teacher contracts needs to go

There must be a better way to negotiate teacher contracts in Minnesota.

Unions have school boards over a barrel because of a 1989 state law that penalizes districts $25 per pupil in state aid if they fail to reach agreements with their teachers' unions by Jan. 15.

The penalty will cost the Frazee-Vergas School District about $26,000 this year. It is one of just 25 school districts in Minnesota that failed to reach contract settlements before the deadline.

The situation in Frazee-Vergas is probably due as much as anything to acrimony between the teachers and the superintendent, backed by the majority of school board members.

The Frazee-Vergas community as a whole appears to be suffering from that schism.

But we're talking about a flawed state law that leaves school districts with a financial -- as well as public relations -- incentive to settle.

It has put pressure on the collective-bargaining process that maybe isn't the best kind of pressure.

Teachers' contracts in Minnesota expire in July of every odd-numbered year and correspond with the state's biennial budget.

Before the law was passed, it was not unusual for half of the state's school districts to be without contracts six months into the biennium.

A better system would be for the state commissioner of education to flip a coin on Jan. 15 to determine if the school districts or unions would be assessed the $25 per pupil fine for not reaching an agreement.

Or if that's too dramatic --we don't want to encourage gambling in our young people, after all -- how about sending unresolved contracts to binding arbitration?

Although inflation has helped tame the penalty, which would be about $42 per student in 1989 dollars, these are tough times for school districts.

They need the flexibility to negotiate on an even playing field.

Teachers in general do an excellent job and deserve to be fairly paid, especially in Frazee-Vergas, where teachers have taken a financial beating in recent years.

When times get better, school district should play financial catch-up with staff salaries.

Until then, districts are in crisis mode, and the $25-per-student deadline penalty doesn't help.