Seven months after Eden Prairie Schools’ teacher employment contract expired on June 30, 2023, the district and the Eden Prairie Education Association (EPEA) are still trying to agree on terms for a new one.
EP Schools and the EPEA, the local union that negotiates contracts for the district’s teachers and licensed staff, have both said they want to reach an agreement as soon as possible. On Jan. 17, EP Schools said that Superintendent Josh Swanson hoped to reach an agreement by Jan. 31.
Although negotiations have progressed, the parties have been unable to reach a complete consensus, primarily with respect to the EPEA’s proposals regarding working conditions.
Teacher contracts are negotiated every two years; negotiations for the 2023-2025 contract began on June 21, 2023. Although the new contract has not yet been settled, teachers continue working under the terms of their expired 2021-2023 contract.
Negotiations normally take a couple of months; however, EP Schools is not alone in having an atypical delay. Less than one-third of districts across the state had settled their contracts as of mid-December, which is a historic low, according to Education Minnesota, a public education advocacy group made up of 472 unions from across the state.
Education Minnesota stated that while delays vary by district, a common factor is teacher unions’ requests for increased salaries and benefits packages to compensate for rising inflation and soaring healthcare costs.
Unions across the state have said that increased per-pupil state funding, resulting from a $2.2 billion package passed by the state Legislature in May 2023, should be used in part to boost their compensation.
Meanwhile, many districts, including EP Schools, have said much of the additional state money they will receive is needed to pay for new state mandates, such as universal free school meals and new reading curriculum, as well as to bridge financing gaps caused by the end of government pandemic-relief funds.
After beginning on June 21, EP Schools-EPEA negotiations were almost immediately put on hold for several weeks by the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), which is in charge of bargaining unit and union determinations. This delay was related to a new state statute that, as of July 1, requires school districts to allow preschool teachers to join the same bargaining unit as K-12 teachers.
Prior to this, EP Schools’ preschool teachers bargained through their own union, the Eden Prairie Preschool Education Association, which they voted to create in 2018. Joining the same bargaining unit as K-12 teachers would enable them to receive the same, significantly higher salary and benefits packages as Eden Prairie’s K-12 teachers.
After several weeks, the BMS issued an official clarification stating that EP Schools’ preschool teachers must be included in EPEA negotiations, and discussions resumed on Aug. 23.
However, as months have dragged on without a resolution, both EP Schools and the EPEA have recently reached out to the community to share their positions and seek support and understanding.
EP Schools has provided extensive information and updates about the negotiation process on the district’s website and in direct communications with families.
EPEA members have also reached out to the community to explain the union’s position and to outline contract terms it considers reasonable and necessary.
Progress made in Jan. 17 bargaining meeting
District representatives and the EPEA have met 14 times since June 21, 2023, to try to hash out terms for a new contract.
The most recent bargaining meeting was held on Jan. 17 at the district’s Administrative Services Center.
In a first for these negotiations, the EPEA opened the meeting by offering financial concessions on annual salary and benefits increases, a response to the district’s financial proposal.
The EPEA’s original total package increase request at the start of negotiations was 22.24%. This reflected a 12% increase in 2023-24 and an 8% increase in 2024-25, which would have cost the district $16,253,573 over two years.
The EPEA’s new total package request, which included salary and benefits, was for a 9.5% increase in 2023-24 and a 5.5% increase in 2024-25. This brought the EPEA package increase request down to 17.53% and a cost of $12,662,019.
The EPEA said it was willing to reduce its total package request as a result of the district agreeing to some professional considerations, such as compensation for working evening events and eligibility for subbing compensation for those who previously did not receive this compensation.
EPEA also withdrew its proposal to provide additional teacher compensation for certain after-hours events like curriculum nights.
In sum, the district and the EPEA reached 22 tentative agreements. The EPEA also withdrew proposals on several items where existing contract language or memorandums of understanding already covered union needs.
However, several key items remain to be resolved at the bargaining table, including teacher prep time, class sizes, meeting frequency, and Q Comp/Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System.
The bargaining meeting was scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m., but the district ended it at about 4:20 p.m. following the EPEA’s presentation of its position. Thomas May, EP Schools’ director of human resources, stated that the district needed to review the EPEA’s latest proposals and would respond at the next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 24.
EPEA: Concerns over teacher workload, safety, retention
Two days after the Jan. 17 meeting, Dominic Kirkpatrick, who is the EPEA president, said of the union’s newly proposed financial concessions: “We wanted to show good faith. We believe we are bargaining in good faith.”
Although the EPEA seeks a reasonable salary and benefits package increase, Kirkpatrick said its three main concerns are teacher workload, safety, and retention.
She added that the EPEA “holds fast to contract proposals that center around working conditions for educators, which directly impact the learning conditions for their students.”
Currently, she said poor working conditions are driving many qualified and experienced educators away from EP Schools. “If teachers don’t feel supported, safe, or respected, they are willing to take a pay cut to go elsewhere for a better environment,” she said.
Teachers across the district are facing an overly burdensome workload, with significant improvements needed in areas like prep time and class size targets, Kirkpatrick said.
Although class size targets set by the school board have been honored in the younger grades for the most part, many secondary school classes continue to be larger than is ideal or manageable, she said. According to data provided by the EPEA, in the fall of 2023, 27% of classes at EPHS had 31 or more students, and some had up to 38.
“There is a direct correlation between class size and student outcomes: individual time with each student, timely feedback for academic progress, relationship-building opportunities, social/emotional learning, addressing specific student needs as they arise, and overall classroom environment,” Kirkpatrick said.
“The EPEA is not asking for the classroom sizes to be lowered in Eden Prairie Schools,” she added. “The EPEA is asking for the targets the school board has set and budgeted for to be honored, and in those cases when a class size reaches over that target, the EPEA has proposed additional hours of pay be granted to honor the additional time needed to perform all that is needed for students’ needs.”
She said safety is also a major concern, adding that enough EP Schools teachers have faced violence and harassment in their workplace that there is a “desperate need” to address the concern in contract negotiations. “It is no longer palatable to talk about safety concerns; it is necessary to expect corrective action,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said that some teachers have grown accustomed to being cursed at and treated disrespectfully, while others have experienced physical threats such as being shoved, punched, or spit at. “More serious or repeated incidents negatively affect both the staff involved and students who witness these incidents,” she said.
In addition to wanting the administration to enforce district policies around consequences for these students, the EPEA is seeking the addition of up to five days’ leave for teachers who have faced assault, violence, or harassment, allowing time for recovery and healing.
Retention is the other major issue the EPEA wishes to address, Kirkpatrick said. She said there has been unusually high teacher turnover in the district over the past few years, which the EPEA believes is a result of working conditions.
At the end of the 2022-23 school year, Kirkpatrick said there were 152 teacher vacancies out of 700 positions in the district, only one of which was due to retirement. The previous summer, there were 125 new teachers.
Kirkpatrick said high turnover creates an experience vacuum and requires remaining teachers to do increased training and mentoring to onboard the new educators.
For instance, at EPHS, nine out of 18 social studies teachers are currently probationary. (In Minnesota, the first three consecutive years of a teacher’s first teaching experience in a single district are considered a probationary period of employment. The probationary period in each district in which the teacher is thereafter employed is one year.)
EP Schools: ‘Committed to finding solutions’
EP Schools has shared detailed information about its perspectives and the negotiation process on its website and in email communications with families.
On its website, the district stated that its “goal in contract negotiations is to offer competitive and responsible contracts that attract and retain the best possible talent and empower them to fulfill our district mission of inspiring each student every day.”
It also stated the negotiation process should reflect the district’s core values, including trust, respect, and continuous learning.
And it approached negotiations keeping in mind Eden Prairie School Board Executive Limitation 2.8, Compensation and Benefits, which states:
“With respect to employment, compensation, and benefits to employees, consultants, and contract workers, the Superintendent shall not cause or allow jeopardy to financial integrity or to public image. Furthermore, the Superintendent shall not:
- Promise or imply permanent or guaranteed employment.
- Establish current compensation and benefits that deviate materially from the geographical or professional market for the skills employed. Further, compensation and benefits must not deviate from Board-established parameters. ”
It said its goals were also to make staff “feel appreciated for their interests, talents, intrinsic value, and individual gifts, and creating a foundation of mutual trust and respect” and provide them “with pay and benefits that are competitive in the marketplace and responsible in order to maintain long-term financial sustainability.”
Superintendent Swanson joined the district’s negotiating committee on Jan. 3 and, at that time, told the EPEA that the district’s goal was to reach a tentative agreement by Jan. 31. However, the EPEA said then that it was not able to commit to that timeline.
In its Jan. 3 negotiations meeting summary, the district said that Swanson “shared his understanding that the areas of most interest to the union are safety and workload, and committed to finding solutions while noting the district couldn’t agree to current proposals on those issues because they do not address the root causes of the issues.”
In a Jan. 10 response specifically addressing the EPEA’s proposal for up to five days’ sick-hazard leave as a result of assault, violence, or harassment, the district said, “As much as we empathize with our licensed staff and appreciate their proposal … we cannot agree to five days’ leave for each incident of assault, threat or harassment because it does not address the root causes of the concern.”
It added, “We would like to explore those causes further in a collaborative environment where we can bring diverse perspectives together from across the district to uncover effective solutions. Therefore, Eden Prairie Schools will develop a district safety task force where we can partner with the EPEA and other representative staff in all areas to identify the root causes of safety concerns, develop proactive strategies that promote safety, and determine appropriate ways to repair harm when caused.”
In an update on Jan. 17, the district said after receiving many requests from the community for information about negotiations, it wanted to share its most recent efforts toward reaching an agreement with the EPEA.
“We deeply value our incredible staff, and our goal has been — and continues to be — to provide a highly competitive and responsible contract that attracts and retains the best possible talent and empowers them to fulfill our district mission of inspiring each student every day,” the district stated in a Parent Post email sent to families on Jan. 17.
“We share our community’s care and concern for our educators, who care deeply for our students and deserve competitive and responsible contracts that honor their interests, talents, intrinsic value, and individual gifts,” the email continued. “Through continued discussions, we are hopeful we can quickly settle a contract for our teachers and licensed staff.”
We offer several ways for our readers to provide feedback. Your comments are welcome on our social media posts (Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, and LinkedIn). We also encourage Letters to the Editor; submission guidelines can be found on our Contact Us page. If you believe this story has an error or you would like to get in touch with the author, please connect with us.