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Teachers battle Carlson over two-year pay freeze; senator explains vote

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, defends his decision to support a bill calling for a two-year school district employee wage freeze during an Education Minnesota eggs and issues breakfast Saturday with Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

About 50 teachers from five area school districts took Sen. John Carlson to task Saturday morning for his support of a two-year teacher pay freeze.

While not comfortable with "usurping local control," Carlson said not imposing the pay freeze statewide could see the loss of 1,200 jobs across the state.

"In the end, it came down to me, and for my vote, to job loss," Carlson said about a heated Senate Republican Caucus debate over S.F. 56 which would freeze salaries for two years of all school district employees, including teachers.

Education Minnesota sponsored the eggs and issues breakfast Saturday morning with Carlson and Rep. Dave Hancock, both Bemidji Republicans, at the Holiday Inn Express. While all local legislators were invited, they were the only ones to attend.

There is no similar pay freeze bill in the House, but Hancock said he wouldn't support it, anyway.

"I am for local negotiations with local people," Hancock said, to a round of applause. "I believe that's consistent with my position of the government closest to the people best serves the people. Local control is really what representative government is all about."

It places local school boards and teachers "in a tough situation, but that's where it should be," Hancock said.

"What we were told ... is that if we didn't do the freeze, there would be a loss in excess of 1,200 jobs across the state because what would happen in individual negotiations, local school boards would be forced to lay off workers," Carlson said. "We just don't want that to happen."

Carlson said he weighed the two-year wage freeze versus the loss of the jobs, and didn't believe losing the jobs was the right answer.

"We need to get out of this mess we're in," he said of an eventual budget fix to a $6.2 billion deficit predicted for the coming biennium. "We need to fix the structural problem so going forward, we don't have this problem of the state you and the local school district what to do."

There is no companion bill in the House, but when there is, "there will be a real debate," Hancock said.

Teachers from Park Rapids and Blackduck complained that they are already under a pay freeze.

Carlson said that if the House passes a bill and it goes to conference committee, it will be amended to exempt from the freeze school districts already in a two-year freeze.

"We're very much committed to local control and local options," Hancock said. "Personally I would say, if there is a loss of jobs, that really should be up to the local board and local schoolteachers."

Accountability and local control are two of Hancock's guiding principles.

"We cannot let the local school boards off in terms of the accountability that they have," he said. "If the solution is to lay some of those people off, then that's something that the local individual teachers and local school boards have to decide."

A Bemidji School District teacher said the negotiation process is needed to hold the district accountable, since it increased its fund balance from $2.4 million to $5.5 million during the recession.

"That comes up to $3.8 million banked during these devastating financial times," the teacher said. "But yet you voted to take away my ability to meet them at the table and try and glean some of this excess off of them."

Carlson said he would not agree to just a pay freeze on teachers. "If we're going to do this, in my mind the only way we're going to do this, is that across the board it had to be all the way to the top, all the way to the bottom."

Carlson said that by May 23, when the Legislature must adjourn, "it is my wish, it was the wish of S.F. 56, that we would hold the school districts as harmless as possible. ... Withhold your final judgment until the whole budget is balanced, because there are some things that will be much more severe coming down the road."

If there is pain anywhere, it is going to be shared by all, he said.

Asked to list their top three legislative priorities, Hancock said that "we have to control spending. We have to learn to live within our means. Two, we have to make government as efficient and effective and sustainable as possible. It means we're going to have to do some consolidation and changes in the delivery system in order to provide something that is sustainable in the long run. Three, we need to get back to some constitutional principles that say there are certain things that the federal government does and certain things the states do, but in reality the people ae first."

He said the state budget under current revenue growth will reach $32 billion, "which is more than enough." Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing a $37 billion budget, with $4 billion in new tax revenues.

Carlson said state government must return to core principles of public safety, education, infrastructure and taking care of those most vulnerable.

He would also fund education fully by the state, according to outcomes the people desire. No longer would local school districts levy for operations, only for extras such as athletic facilities.

The Education Minnesota legislative agenda includes keeping K-12 funding at least at the same level as under current law, have the state make a down payment on delayed school payments, closing the achievement gap, stronger teacher development and evaluation and providing for alternative pathways to teaching that requires the candidate to have a college degree in the area they would teach and complete a 200-hour intensive training program with direct supervision of a licensed teacher for the candidate's first 90 days in the classroom.