Republicans delivered one of the first punches Tuesday in what will likely be a heated fight with Minnesota's powerful teachers union, with a bill that would freeze teacher pay and restrict their ability to strike.

The legislation would prevent schools from increasing teacher pay for two years unless it occurs under an existing contract. It also eliminates several mandates that require schools to set aside revenue for staff development and other purposes. The bill specifically forbids teachers from striking because of wage restrictions.

"We all want our teachers to prosper, but we cannot ignore economic realities," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, the bill's chief sponsor. Thompson, a freshman, is backed up by two powerful allies: Assistant Majority Leader Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie and Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, who leads the Senate education committee.

The bill comes as many school districts are struggling to meet budgets with little new money coming from the state in recent years. Locally negotiated wage increases generally raise district costs every year -- in addition to health insurance and building expenses -- although the state has little say in the contract process. In Lakeville, the district is considering eliminating 100 jobs and cutting everything from fifth-grade band to some sports.

As Republicans look to solve Minnesota's projected $6.2 billion budget deficit primarily through spending cuts, local schools are unlikely see more state funds any time soon. Sponsors say the bill would ensure that school districts are not forced to lay off staff to accommodate higher salaries.

Hann, who long advocated similar measures when DFLers controlled the Senate, said the bill would "be a way to help the school districts manage their costs in a period in which they know they're not going to be getting additional revenue."

Local control

Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, argued that many teachers have already accepted pay freezes at the local level.

"Administrators and communities that find a way to give their teachers even a minimal increase during difficult times should be congratulated," said Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher.

Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, likened the wage freeze to a "blunt instrument" that takes away local control from school districts. She said the state should instead reform teacher compensation with more results-based rewards.

Teachers now are paid based on their academic degrees and length of experience. Minnesota teacher salaries and benefits rose an average of 3.8 percent after the last round of negotiations -- down from 6.6 percent in the previous period, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. Education Minnesota contends that half of those recent increases are attributable to rising health insurance expenses.

Olson said she'll begin hearings early next month.

"Holding the line for a couple of years we didn't think was too much to ask," she said. "And I think the school districts would appreciate that assistance as they try to continue to function effectively on behalf of their students and get through this time."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210