COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — A year into contract negotiations, close to 250 United Teachers of South Washington County members packed the District 833 Boardroom and lobby Thursday night.

The most recent meeting with the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services on Feb. 11 ended without a tentative agreement. Union members were told that because decision-makers were absent, nothing could be established that day, UTSWC President Marty Fridgen said. Since then, she said, she has not heard back from the district about setting a date for a new meeting.

“There’s just been no movement, no urgency to settle the contract," she said. "It’s very frustrating. If they want to get this done, I don't understand why we don't have a date."

Thursday's school board meeting includes a closed session regarding labor negotiations.

"They don't have to wait for a closed school board meeting. It just stretches it out," Fridgen said.

Teachers have been working without an updated contract since June 30.

“It’s one of those things where it’s a distraction. It’s always on your mind. You have a million things you’re doing … and yet there’s no contract which makes it feel like, well, where’s the return on your work?” she said.

At the school board meeting, Superintendent Keith Jacobus said the district is offering as much as it can with the current level of funding it has.

If state funding had kept up with inflation over the last 18 years, he said, the district would have about $640 more per student. He cited reductions in transportation, lack of mental health support and unfunded mandates for special education and English learning as other priorities for funding.

“All of these are important, and prioritizing one over the other is nearly impossible because these decisions directly impact our students. For now, we must balance the needs of our 10 other employee groups, our students and ensure we honor our teachers for the work they put in every day,” he said.

Insurance premiums increased after Jan. 1, and without an up-to-date contract accounting for the cost, teachers have been covering the full difference, Fridgen said.

United Teachers of South Washington County President Marty Fridgen speaks at the Feb. 20 School Board meeting, urging the district to select a date for a new meeting and settle the contract. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia
United Teachers of South Washington County President Marty Fridgen speaks at the Feb. 20 School Board meeting, urging the district to select a date for a new meeting and settle the contract. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia

This is the third consecutive year that the union has sought state mediation after an unusually long process, Fridgen said. In an effort to prevent a prolonged process, negotiations started in February 2019 at the district’s request, she said.

Most unions and districts settle within the calendar year that a contract expires, said Rodney Rowe, secretary and treasurer of Education Minnesota.

Meetings with the state mediation bureau began in October.

Union and district leaders came to a tentative agreement in December, but the union voted against accepting it because it did not offer a pay increase on par with the state average, Fridgen said.

While neighboring school districts have offered a 4% increase over two years, the district has offered a 1.7% increase beginning in March for the 2020-21 school year and a 2.4% increase for 2021-22.

Thursday, the union encouraged teachers to “take back” their lunch and prep periods, meaning they would no longer perform extra duties as usual during these hours, Fridgen said.

Wednesday, the union posted to its website a letter from Superintendent Keith Jacobus and human resources director Kevin Witherspoon. Dated Feb. 18, the letter says the district expects union members to maintain “past practice” as the negotiations continue. The union has planned to begin work-to-rule next week, meaning teachers will not work outside of school hours.

The letter states that the district’s “legal view” is that working-to-rule may constitute an illegal strike, resulting in a loss of wages or termination.

“Our legal department, to their knowledge, has never seen anything like this before,” Rowe said.

Fridgen said that she and her legal counsel at Education Minnesota disagree with the letter’s interpretation of the law, and that their existing contract does not include language regarding previous practice. The union has not previously received similar letters, including when they implemented work-to-rule two negotiation cycles ago, Fridgen said.

“I just think it was very insulting and threatening,” Fridgen said. “We’re not telling people to slow down, we’ve never said to limit teachers during their prep time. What was said to people was take back prep and lunch — that means take time to eat … It’s like, instead of doing 10 things on your prep, prepare for your classes.”

Julia Koppich, an independent consultant who specializes in labor management relations, said she found the letter unusual.

“How can they not pay them for work they do?” she said. Unless a contract specifies otherwise, she said, “past practice is just that. It’s what we have typically done, not what the law or the contract obliges us to do.”

The letter began widely circulating on social media Wednesday night, drawing comments from figures such as state Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Education Minnesota President Denise Specht.

“I stand with @UTSWCSchools ! They deserve a contract and respect from the administration!” Bigham tweeted Thursday.

She also retweeted Specht’s comment: “This letter from the superintendent of @ISD833 is threatening and just plain wrong. Shame on @SuperOffice833 for saying unpaid overtime is expected and precedent setting. What he’s saying here is contractual hours don’t matter.”

In a statement ahead of public comment, Jacobus apologized that teachers felt unvalued.

“There are legal responsibilities and official notices that often occur during contract negotiations, including my letter to union leadership regarding work-to-rule. If there is an issue in our district where I am concerned about how it could impact our students or families, I believe it is appropriate and expected that I would communicate these concerns. In no way does this process take away from the value we place on our teachers,” he said. “I am sorry we are in a discussion where it feels like you are unvalued,” he added.

During public comment, teachers emphasized the amount of work they do outside of school hours and the urgency to settle the contract.

“For one of us to give just five minutes of assessment time to 175 students takes over fourteen and a half hours. This does not come out of our time before and after school, when we are instead in meetings or engaged in the enjoyable work of helping our students,” said Adam Hayes, a teacher at East Ridge High School. “In the letter … Drs. Jacobus and Witherspoon lay claim to that time not as a gift, but as an obligation under penalty of the loss of our jobs or our union. So it is this I must ask this school board: when your employees Drs. Jacobus and Witherspoon state that teachers ‘must put in the time that is necessary to fulfill all our job duties,’ who will determine what constitutes enough?"