Frustrated after 10 months of contract negotiations, teachers from the state's largest school district on Monday scheduled their first strike vote in 12 years.
Barring a settlement, Anoka-Hennepin's 3,000 teachers will vote April 17 on whether to authorize their leaders to call a strike. The teachers, whose Monday approval of the strike vote was nearly unanimous, say they are seeking "average" pay increases, but significant benefits changes.
"We are deeply committed to coming to a fair, competitive settlement," Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota President Julie Blaha said after the two-hour meeting of 80 teachers.
"Authorizing a strike vote doesn't mean we want to strike," Blaha said. "We're inviting the district to the table and asking them to roll up their sleeves. We still hope to negotiate an affordable contract that's good for our students and our profession. Unfortunately, our negotiations are stuck."
The district declined to respond to Monday night's decision. The vote surprised some district officials who said they thought the two sides had been close to a deal last week.
"Things fell apart" at last Wednesday's session, according to school board President Tom Heidemann. He expressed bewilderment at the time "because we were so close."
The two sides have been negotiating since May. In December, teachers asked for 2.5 percent raises in each year of the two-year contract. The district offered less.
As talks stalled early this year, the district's teachers started a "work-to-rule" action, doing only what could be completed during the school day and is required by their contract. Teachers stopped grading papers they hadn't graded in the day and no longer voluntarily attended after-school events.
In January, an outside mediator was brought in. Then, last month, after productive bargaining sessions, teachers backed off strike talk and suspended the "work-to-rule" action.
On Monday, teachers said they hoped the threat of a strike vote would get talks moving again, as a similar action did in St. Paul last month.
"We saw in St. Paul, when they got to this point, the school board members started coming to mediation," Blaha said. "We're not seeing that here. I would think this is something the school board members would want to be involved with."
St. Paul teachers recently ratified a new contract calling for an 8.6 percent wage-and-benefit increase over two years and new limits on class size. Minneapolis teachers also have reached a tentative agreement on their new deal on March 1; teachers have until March 28 to vote on the plan.
"Other districts can figure it out," Blaha said. "Why can't we?"
The last time Anoka teachers walked off the job was in 1981. They authorized a strike vote in 2002 but reached a contract deal without going on strike.
Blaha argued that the district is in strong financial shape said noted that teachers have accepted pay freezes and made health-insurance concessions in recent years.
"We'd all love to be done with this," said Ramsey Elementary teacher Jody Anderson. We want to get back to focusing on just our classrooms."
A district representative, however, disputed the union's analysis of the district's solvency and its ability to easily offer pay and benefit increases without tightening the belt elsewhere.
Spokeswoman Mary Olson said the district fell $5 million short of its budget this year and will fall $7.5 million short next year.
"We took $5 million out of our reserve. But we can't keep depleting the reserve," Olson said. "The board believes what the teachers asked would increase class size, teachers' workloads and have a negative impact on the conditions and the work teachers do."
With 38,146 students, Anoka-Hennepin is the state's largest district. Nearly three-fourths of Minnesota's public school districts already have reached new contract agreements, with 83 of the 331 districts tracked by Education Minnesota still unsettled, said spokesman Chris Williams.