Three months after their union contract expired, Lakeville teachers are drawing a line in the sand about work they'll do outside of class.

As part of an unusual union strategy, many are no longer chaperoning school dances or volunteering with school clubs. As soon as their eight-hour shifts are up, they walk out school doors together -- though grading and lesson plans still get done.

And in a move that could affect many college-bound seniors, high school teachers are declining to write letters of recommendation.

The union action began on Monday, when teachers across the district wore yellow T-shirts in a gesture of solidarity that's intended to spur a contract settlement with the school district.

"We want to finish this contract as soon as possible," said Don Sinner, president of the local teachers' union.

But some say the union's tactics will backfire, including Superintendent Lisa Snyder.

"They are old ideas that use fear and actually have the opposite impact that you intend, due to the unique economic times we live in," Snyder said in a recent podcast to employees. "I speak from experience when I tell you that the [union's] message will be perceived negatively by board members and many community members."

Sinner characterized the union's move as a lighter version of "work-to-rule," a strategy in which union members do no more than the minimum required by contract rules.

"We could go way, way, way more stringent on the contract than we are right now," Sinner said.

District leaders have been told that the union activity will ramp up in November if the parties don't have an agreement, said Tony Massaros, the district's director of administrative services.

Sinner said "no decisions are set in stone."

Teachers have behaved professionally, Massaros said last week. "I believe they're doing their best to continue to not put students in the middle of the negotiations process."

The one exception that concerns him, he said, is teachers refusing to write letters of recommendation.

Many teachers urged students to request letters early, Sinner said. Some hurried to finish writing letters before Monday, while others said they'll finish those that were requested before the cutoff date. At Lakeville South High School, Principal Scott Douglas said that deans are writing more letters.

But some students still need them.

"It's worrying me a lot," Meghan Bergman said last week. Bergman, a senior at Lakeville North High, needs two teacher recommendations for her application to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"This is a really crucial time right now in the school year for applying to colleges," she said. "If we can't get [letters], it's hurting our chances to get into schools."

Aside from that, the union's action hasn't affected families much so far, judging from what several parents and students said last week.

Teachers still are doing a lot of work at home. Those who are paid extra to coach sports and activities are doing so, Sinner said.

Neither union nor district leaders would discuss the specifics of ongoing contract negotiations, but Sinner said last week that wages and benefits haven't been discussed yet. Instead, talks are focused on time and workload issues.

A spokesman for Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, said the organization doesn't track local union activity, but that situations similar to Lakeville's don't happen very often.

Teachers in the Prior Lake-Savage district ran a "work-to-rule" protest during contract negotiations in 2007, but officials in several other south-metro districts said their unions haven't done anything similar in the past few years.

As in districts statewide, Lakeville's most recent teacher contract expired at the end of June. The vast majority of districts are still negotiating new two-year contracts, according to Education Minnesota.

But a recent change in state law has many union leaders concerned that negotiations could drag on longer than usual. The change removes a Jan. 15 deadline after which districts without new contracts used to face fines.

Education Minnesota favored the deadline, but many districts' leaders argued that it unfairly penalized negotiators on just one side of the table.

In Lakeville, teachers are also chafed by budget woes that led the school board to cut the equivalent of 85 full-time teachers this year.

Those who remain are being asked to do more, Sinner said. "With the increase of class sizes and class loads on teachers, there's more time pressure on teachers to communicate with parents, to get grading done, to be meaningful in the classroom."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-746-3284