Updated at 11:00 a.m. Thursday.

For decades, new teachers have been familiar with the idea of receiving what’s known as a pink slip, indicating they are being laid off.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Superintendent Cindy Amoroso was one of them when she first began teaching high school English.

District representatives and negotiators from the Burnsville Education Association, a teachers union, were unable to reach a settlement in their 16th negotiations meeting Wednesday night. The parties will go into mediation for the third time on Monday.

For more than 300 days, teachers have been without a contract and district administration says language related to layoffs (known formally as Unrequested Leaves of Absence or ULA), has been the sticking point all along. It was the only item left on the table after negotiations on Wednesday.

The issue revolves around a change the Minnesota Legislature enacted last year that eliminated a statute that previously provided fallback contract language which said districts were to first lay off the last-hired teachers if the district and union did not negotiate their own ULA contract language. Amoroso said the statute, commonly known as “last in, first out,” attracted criticism over the years for not taking a teacher’s performance into account, but the district and union had previously chosen not to negotiate this language in the contract.

“The new language states that the district will need to agree with the union,” Amoroso said. “They didn’t tell us how we could do it differently.”

Amoroso said district representatives offered to put this issue off until 2019, but said the union didn’t want to wait.

“The fallback process is now gone and each local (union) must negotiate a ULA policy to be in place by July 1, 2019,” said BEA President Wendy Drugge. “It’s a difficult issue and it’s taking time to work through. We’re looking for a system that’s transparent, objective, trustworthy, and predictable. The district has slightly different priorities. We’re ready to keep negotiating until we find ULA language that works for both sides.”

Amoroso said the district’s proposal is built on the old statute’s language, with three layers added on top to outline who would be laid off before the most recently hired teachers. Proposals from both sides include two layers that are in agreement.

The district’s proposal adds one additional layer that Amoroso said they are stuck on. She said that the district is proposing that a teacher with discipline in their file would be laid off before it would come down to seniority.

The disciplinary action would include a letter of reprimand, letter of deficiency, unpaid suspension or termination. It also states that in the event that position were to be added again within three years, the laid off teacher would have first recall to the position.

Drugge said the BEA’s proposal also has new elements that were not previously part of state statute and that are consistent with the district’s priorities.

At the negotiation table this week, BEA lead negotiator Sara Strahota, a teacher at Marion W. Savage Elementary, said they will not settle on the language in the district’s proposal surrounding disciplinary action and layoffs.

The district’s proposal lists “Any qualified teacher with disciplinary action within the last five years” as the third item in the layoff process. It reads, “Qualified teachers who have received disciplinary action within the last five years will be placed on an Unrequested Leave of Absence.” Item No. 4 is the least senior teacher, meaning that a teacher with a disciplinary action on their file would be laid off before the most recent hire.

“You’re not wanting to put discipline action as one of the considerations for a ULA process — a layoff process,” lead negotiator for the district Stacey Sovine responded to Strahota. “It sounds very much that you would rather have somebody with disciplinary action than somebody who is less senior in front of our students.”

“No, we would rather the district use due process — that they already have in place — to remove teachers that need to be removed,” Strahota answered.

“Due process is in place, even in this case,” Sovine said.

The negotiations broke out into caucus twice and lasted an hour.

“The district wants language to retain our best educators,” Amoroso said. “In talking to some of our teachers, it has not been explained to them what the hang up is. They’ve been led to believe that we are wanting to do something that’s negative to teachers.”

Drugge declined an opportunity to respond to these comments before Wednesday’s negotiations. The Savage Pacer reached out to several district teachers for comment, but all declined or referred to Drugge for additional comment.

The waiting game

For months, teachers have picketed, worn BEA shirts and pins, and established a social media presence to raise community awareness for the unsettled contract. Currently, teachers are in “Work to Rule” days, where they work as advised by union leadership. Currently, that means not working outside of the eight-hour contract day, which teachers began doing on April 9.

At the beginning and end of each school day, teachers can be seen entering and leaving the school together in solidarity.

“The teachers continue to prepare engaging and informational lessons and present those lessons to hundreds of students a day. We’re still grading tests and providing constructive criticism of our students’ homework. Many teachers continue seeing students during their before and after school time,” Drugge said in a statement when asked to comment on “work to rule.” “We’re doing the work specified in our contract. It’s true that we’re going to fewer volunteer events, but those have always been outside our duty day. Would you donate your time to people who don’t treat you with respect?”

Some teachers are paid a stipend for work outside of the classroom, and they continue to work in those roles during the “work to rule.” Stipends are established for which teachers can apply, such as a stipend for the director of a school theater production.

Amoroso said that principals have been advised to have teachers attend professional development, PBIS team meetings, and other committee activities or duties during the school day, yet some teachers have resisted this.

“What they’ve all said is, ‘If you’re not paying me extra, above my pay, I’m not doing it anymore,’” Amoroso said. “What our HR office did was say, ‘No, if this is a part of what you do as a regular part of your job, you are still directed to do this.”

Amoroso also said that custodians are the only ones that have a settled an approved contract.

“Nobody has a contract, but we’re all working,” Amoroso said, referring to other union employees in the district who do not have a contract in place at this time.

Christine Schuster is a reporter for the Savage Pacer.

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