After 10 months of trying to negotiate a new contract, teachers in the state's largest school district say the process has hit a standstill.
The Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota bargaining team is recommending Monday that its members set a date for the 3,000 teachers to vote on authorizing a strike after months of negotiating and 16 bargaining sessions.
If a vote is set and approved sometime in the next month or so, it would authorize union leaders to issue a strike — for the first time since 2002.
"This is a big decision so we don't want to rush it," said local union President Julie Blaha. "But we want to build some urgency to get this settled."
Most of Minnesota's public school districts have already reached new contract agreements, with about 30 percent of the 331 two-year contracts tracked by Education Minnesota still unsettled, spokesman Chris Williams said. The average salary increase is about 2 percent the first year and 2 percent the second year.
On March 1, Minneapolis teachers reached a tentative agreement that they will vote on in mid-April. St. Paul teachers ratified their contract March 4.
In Anoka-Hennepin, the two sides have been negotiating since last May. As talks stalled early this year, teachers started a "work-to-rule" action, stopping grading papers or doing other work after hours in the approximately 39,000-student district. In January, an outside mediator was brought in, and last month, teachers backed off strike talk after productive bargaining sessions.
But at Wednesday's session, "things fell apart," school board President Tom Heidemann said. "We're kind of puzzled right now because we were so close," he said.
Blaha said school board members weren't present at the meeting to discuss major changes in the contract, such as a proposal to slow down younger members' progress on the salary schedule.
"We came to a place where we couldn't talk any further because the people weren't there," she said.
Both groups have made concessions; the district, Heidemann said, has improved its offer "to close the gaps" while Blaha said they've dropped their 2.5 percent raise proposal to be more in line with the district's proposal, details of which she'll release Monday. But, she said, key issues like the salary schedule and health insurance changes remain.
"We're not asking for anything out of line," she said.
Heidemann countered there's only so much the district can afford.
"We've offered as much as we can without impacting the classroom," he said.
What both sides do agree on, however, is that negotiations have gone on longer than expected. The contract expired July 2013.
"We're ready to get back involved," Blaha said, adding about the vote to authorize a strike: "Just because we have this discussion doesn't mean we stop bargaining."