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License limbo: District, teachers union clash over status of early-learning teachers

COTTAGE GROVE — Some parents and preschool teachers denounced a move by District 833 to eliminate the licensing requirement for early learning teachers.

They spoke during the public comments period at the Sept. 20 South Washington County School Board meeting at the District Service Center in Cottage Grove.

District 833 teachers are represented through local 1125 of the United Teachers of South Washington County.

In the spring, the District petitioned the state Bureau of Mediation Services to remove licensing requirements for roughly 35 school readiness and pre-K teachers.

In a statement issued Sept. 24, director of communications and community relations Shelly Schafer said that the decision was made to avoid exposure to potential legal challenges.

"The District prefers that school readiness instructors hold a teaching license, and the vast majority of our school readiness instructors do hold a license. ...This decision was not made because we do not think a license is important, rather it was made to make sure our school district was not left in a legally questionable position, in accordance with (the Public Employees Labor Relations Act) PELRA and recent case law," the statement said.

Responding to what they say is confusion over the move, the board has "decided to postpone removing them from the bargaining unit until they have a final Bureau of Mediation Services ruling," Schafer said.

United Teachers of South Washington County president Marty Fridgen said the District cannot eliminate licensing requirements without negotiating with the union, a process known as unit clarification, she said.

"They're unilaterally changing the working conditions by pulling them out of the bargaining until without negotiating," she said.

She said they weren't informed of the decision until the beginning of the school year.

The union has filed a grievance.

A pre-hearing is set for Oct. 4 with the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

A sticking point is whether or not District 833 teachers who instruct children aged 3-5 are still members of the union.

"(W)e are treating them like they are still in our bargaining unit and the district is not," Frigden said.

At the school board meeting, parents and pre-school teachers said that eliminating the licensing requirement could shortchange children during a pivotal time in their development, when social and cognitive abilities are coalescing.

Samantha Crabtree of Cottage Grove called the decision "deeply disturbing."

"They ... have chosen to put the youngest most vulnerable minds in the hands of potentially non-licensed, non-trained educators," she told the board. "Not only does this directly affect the children whose brains get the most development at these critical ages, but it affects our

Educators. ... I have to hold and carry and license as a licensed childcare provider here in the state. So should those I'm sending my child off to school with."

In the statement, District 883's Schafer cited a 2016 ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals that "school readiness instructors do not belong in a teachers' bargaining unit because they do not meet the legal definition of a 'teacher.'"

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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