It was really important that Brooklyn Center schools reach a teacher contract settlement by the state-imposed Jan. 15 deadline -- for both sides.

That's because the district, dripping red ink, couldn't afford a $42,000 fine that would be imposed if negotiations dragged on past that date.

Several weeks past the deadline, a handful of Minnesota districts are still trying to hammer out two-year labor agreements with their teachers. According to surveys by Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, contract issues in 15 districts out of 346 statewide have yet to be resolved. Those include Waconia, Faribault, Albert Lea and St. Cloud. Apart from Waconia, all the Twin Cities districts have approved new teacher contracts.

Although Albert Lea escaped a penalty because its contract terms were in arbitration, other districts face a penalty of $25 per student for missing the deadline.

Although negotiations in some districts continue to drag on, neither state school boards association nor Education Minnesota officials see any hot spots that might flare up into teacher strikes.

"What we're seeing is a cooling-off period that generally happens with districts that miss the deadline," said Education Minnesota spokesman Doug Dooher.

Dooher said a few districts, including Bloomington and Brooklyn Center, just barely made the cutoff. In Brooklyn Center, teachers voted at 5 p.m. Jan. 14 to ratify a new contract.

Unnecessary expense

A fine for missing the deadline would have been tough to swallow. Brooklyn Center is in statutory operating debt, which is the state designation for being in the red to the tune of at least 2.5 percent of its operating budget. In real terms, Brooklyn Center, which has a budget of $19 million, is $2.1 million in the hole.

To top off the budget difficulties, the district failed in its efforts in November to get voters to approve a 10-year, $500,000-a-year funding request.

"We wanted it to be done," district superintendent Keith Lester said of the settlement with teachers. "We're far enough in debt we didn't want to lose [the $42,000]."

Teachers also wanted a settlement before the deadline.

"With going over the deadline, we would have been fined, and we know full well that money would have been taken out of the money they had to give us for a settlement," said local teachers union president Cathy Bufis. "So it was a no-win for us."

The result was a settlement that Lester said represents a 9 percent increase in costs over the current contract. The new teacher contracts cover the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years.

The Brooklyn Center figures include an allowance to pay off an 8 percent increase in health insurance premiums. Also, Lester and Bufis said, there was a 1.3 percent salary increase over two years for older teachers who amass a certain number of years of service.

Teachers also wanted a settlement, though they were far from pleased with the result. For one thing, they were irked that the contract contained no across-the-board salary increases.

"I've been negotiating contracts for the past five rounds," Bufis said. "We've been in statutory operating debt for almost all that time. ... It makes negotiations extremely difficult because being in statutory operating debt is always being held over our heads. We're told, 'We're in statutory operating debt; we can't give you a significant raise ...'"

Bufis said teachers were also upset that some district administrators received raises while teachers were being asked to bite the bullet.

Lester said of the settlement: "I feel pretty good about it. Would it have been nice to have been able to give more dollars [to the teachers]? Absolutely."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547