More than 200 Minnesota school districts remain without teacher contracts, significantly more than two years ago, and there's no longer a state-imposed Jan. 15 deadline to penalize those that don't reach agreements.

The 2011 Legislature dropped the financial penalty that hung over the heads of negotiators for most two-year bargaining cycles since 1989. Minneapolis lost about $800,000 when it was one of 24 districts to miss the Jan. 15 deadline in 2010.

According to Education Minnesota's count, about 100 of 331 districts have agreed to contracts with teachers. That compares with 126 districts at this point in the 2009-11 contract cycle, with most of the rest settling within the next two weeks. But the financial incentive to settle quickly is gone now.

"Deadlines help people get their work done on time. We know that," said Julie Blaha, president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota. "We like to get our homework done on time."

Her district, the state's largest, settled with its roughly 2,700 teachers in October. That's the result of several years of working toward earlier progress, Blaha said. The latest settlement grants no cost-of-living increases for a third straight year, meaning about half of the teachers will see no increases after raises for experience and education are factored in.

"We've been working over several contract rounds to make progress on a more timely settlement," Blaha said. The early settlement made it easier for the district and teachers to work together to pass two of three levy referendums on the November ballot, she said.

Minneapolis, St. Paul still out

Neither St. Paul nor Minneapolis has settled. In Minneapolis, which didn't finish its 2009-11 contract until more than a year after the deadline, chief lawyer Steve Liss said he expects a round of intense negotiations in the coming week.

The emphasis on addressing student achievement played a role in slowing progress in both negotiations, he said. "If it were just on the money, we'd be settled pretty quickly," he said. In St. Paul, a key issue has been whether to limit class sizes, as teachers seek.

Education Minnesota said it has recorded information from 79 settlements to date, with field reports of another 20. The Minnesota School Boards Association said it has received reports on 75 settlements, but has seen news reports indicating that more have been reached. All but 10 are from outside the Twin Cities.

Greg Abbott, the school board association's spokesman, said the biggest factor in delayed settlements this year is late approval of state aid to schools in the July special legislative session after Minnesota's government shutdown.

"There was a whole couple of months where nobody was going to be negotiating anything, because nobody knew what they were going to be negotiating," Abbott said.

The fate of voter-approved tax increases for operating funds added to the uncertainty.

Small increases seen

Education Minnesota said the average cost-of-living increase for settled contracts so far has been less than 1 percent a year. Increases at this point two years ago also averaged less than 1 percent. Eighteen teacher bargaining units settled for no increase in both years, and another 13 had no increase in one of two years, according to spokesman Doug Dooher.

The Jan. 15 deadline initially was imposed because legislators didn't want teachers working well into a biennium without a contract. Some also were irritated that some contract settlements were delayed in hopes that an even-year legislative session would add more school aid.

Education Minnesota favors the deadline, but the school boards association sought its repeal and the new Republican majority in the Legislature did so.

The teacher union's data indicates that more than 200 districts hadn't settled by Jan. 15 in two bargaining cycles in 1997-99 and 2003-05, when the bargaining deadline wasn't in effect.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438