Contract negotiations between the St. Paul teachers union and the school district start this week, but they have already hit some bumps in the road.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers is "disappointed," said President Mary Cathryn Ricker, that the district has already discussed some of its proposals for the union in public, before presenting them in private during negotiations.

"In the past," she said, "one of the first ground rules set is that we're not going to negotiate in public."

Public schools in St. Paul face many challenges right now, from dealing with the district's largest budget deficit in at least 10 years for the next school year to embarking on a districtwide restructuring plan that includes closing buildings and changing how students are assigned to schools.

The district's plan for negotiations include asking for a pay freeze that would stop the cost-of-living pay increases teachers and other employees receive to working with the union to start a state merit-pay program that could change professional development.

Teresa Rogers, executive director of human resources and employee relations for the district, said that these disclosures were simply a way to include staff and the community in discussions about the district's future.

From the district's perspective, a public conversation about how to deal with the $25 million budget deficit would have been tricky if district officials couldn't mention the $5 million they hope to save by freezing employee salaries.

"It's an effort to be transparent and engage the community" in conversations about restructuring, she said.

But for the union, it's "unprecedented," Ricker said, and "instead of helping us to launch our negotiations, it served to distract from the conversations we were trying to have with our members."

The district has said it could receive an additional $10 million in state funding for the merit-pay program, called Q Comp, which focuses on professional development and increasing pay for effective teachers. The program needs to be negotiated and designed with teachers.

School board member John Brodrick, a retired teacher, has said he's upset at how the district has handled its proposals for the union, because he thinks relations between the district and teachers have been fairly strong.

"We were sort of putting the cart before the horse by proposing things that will ultimately need to be negotiated," Brodrick said. "The bottom line is that on any change we make, none of them will work unless we have done it in a collaborative manner. We need everybody on board."

There are currently 3,414 teachers in St. Paul who are either active or on paid leave and are covered by the contract. The average salary of a teacher in the district this year is $61,646, and the average starting salary is $37,100.

Teachers haven't filed a formal grievance with the district in at least four years. Rogers said she expects negotiations for the 2009-2011 contract to last until the end of the year.

The district has also specified that it wants to negotiate "more flexible labor agreements," according to a presentation made earlier this month, as well as "a system for seniority and tenure that will ensure the most effective teachers and principals are working with our students" to improve achievement and close the achievement gap.

Many tenure rules are set by state law, so the district also specifies it will "seek legislative changes to allow flexibility in achievement of tenure."

Although she wouldn't get more specific, Ricker said the union is thinking of negotiations as "another opportunity to organize around some issues that we think are going to be really good for the work we do for our schools and students."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460