Others’ Opinion: Beware of veiled spending increases for MnSCU

Published 8:59 am Tuesday, September 2, 2014

—The St. Paul Pioneer Press

New labor agreements are among milestones for MnSCU, the state’s largest education system, as it prepares for a new school year.

The tentative agreement announced in July with one faculty union was reached after long, contentious negotiations. Two others were approved last week by a legislative subcommittee and are now in effect.

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We approach the agreements from the standpoint of restraint, with concern about making promises that others — namely taxpayers— will have to keep:

— Members of the Inter Faculty Organization, representing educators at the system’s seven state universities, would receive an overall salary increase of 7 percent over two years, the Pioneer Press has reported. A new provision — an objective of the union’s for about 20 years, and the first in a state-worker union contract, its president Jim Grabowska told us — would allow six weeks of paid parental leave on the birth or adoption of a child. The agreement is subject to approval by union members, MnSCU trustees and the Legislature.

— The contracts now in effect are with the Minnesota State College Faculty, representing members at two-year institutions, and the Minnesota State University Association of Administrative and Service Faculty, representing non-teaching faculty serving in academic and student-services departments. Both secured 6 percent increases over two years.

“We’re absolutely delighted to have reached agreements with all three of our faculty unions,” Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told us. “The real hurdle all along was having the base dollars we needed to bring to the bargaining table to reach agreements that were comparable” to those with other public-employee unions.

He credits help from the House, Senate and governor’s office in securing supplemental funding that enabled MnSCU to close the contract discussion soon after the session ended.

A legislative leader, however, raises some thoughtful questions.

From her experience in the K-12 arena, “and really as someone who has had concerns around all of our labor contract negotiations, I think that whole process should be revisited,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka Democrat and chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Her point: Transparency. There isn’t much when it comes to “the way these contracts are negotiated.”

We may hear that a K-12 contract, she said, was settled for a 2 percent increase, for example.

“But that 2 percent is on top of what’s already built into negotiations around what we call steps and lanes” — provisions for salary increases for experience and continuing education.

“Maybe, once you add those, that 2 percent isn’t 2 percent — it’s really 5 percent.”

Performance, she believes, “ought to be part of any negotiation.” Labor contracts should reflect current trends in employment, including those that emphasize that “nobody’s raise should be independent of their performance review.”

It’s not just about seniority, she said, but rather about asking what outcomes “our teachers or professors are providing.”

Grabowska explained that the tenure process for state university faculty is unlike others. They are, in effect, at-will employees for the first five years, he said. Each year, such faculty members provide and are evaluated on a plan in five areas, including teaching, research and professional growth. The new contract would grant time to first-year faculty members to work on such tenure objectives.

When it comes to transparency, the union — which has raised questions this year about board-of-trustees’ operations — welcomes new trustees to the MnSCU board, Grabowska said. “We encourage them to take heed” of an admonition from the governor.

In announcing last week the six Minnesotans to fill vacancies, Gov. Mark Dayton said he expects “new members, and the entire board, to enhance transparency and accountability in the governance and operations of the MnSCU system.”

He named Jay Cowles of St. Paul, as well as Kelly Carpentier-Berg, Coon Rapids; Robert Hoffman, Waseca; Maleah Otterson, Chanhassen; Louise Sundin, Minneapolis; and Erma Vizenor of the White Earth Nation.

We, too, expect a lot of them. Transparency is an important start. But spending restraint should be a constant.