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Schools must share terms of tentative contract agreements, state agency says

MOORHEAD - Minnesota school districts must share tentative employee contracts with the public before the employees and school boards vote on the contracts, a state agency ruled in response to a Forum request.

The newspaper sought the advisory opinion from the state Department of Administration this spring after the Moorhead Public School District refused to share details of its tentative two-year teacher contract until the evening of the board vote.

Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon said the opinion helps clarify an important issue:

"It means the public can know what their tax money is intended to be used for before it's a done deal."

Moorhead Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said he received and reviewed the opinion and the district has no comment at this time.

The Moorhead district wrapped up negotiations with its teacher's union on Jan. 1 with help from an outside mediator. The representative from the state Bureau of Mediation Services lawfully closed the negotiations session that yielded the tentative agreement.

But the district refused to disclose any details of the tentative agreement until 10 days later, when the school board voted to make the contract official. Earlier that same day, teachers ratified the agreement, and the full school board studied it in a closed meeting.

In its opinion request, The Forum argued that though Minnesota teachers unions and school boards can close strategy sessions, the tentative agreements struck in closed meetings must be publicly shared if requested before the school board publicly votes to ratify the agreement.

"We feel that there is a value in sharing details of such agreements before the final school board vote," Von Pinnon wrote in the request. "This way, taxpayers can process the proposed terms and weigh in on them to the board."

In a fact-finding response to the Department of Administration, James Knutson, an attorney for the district, said the state mediator directed the district not to disclose documents or proposals that the closed session yielded.

The department's commissioner, Sheila Reger, disagreed. Any written agreement coming out of the negotiation session is a public document, she said.

In his input to the department, Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Steve Hoffmeyer said the Moorhead mediation session, as is often the case with such meetings, yielded a verbal agreement between the two sides.

But Knutson, the district's attorney, provided the Department of Administration with a document titled "Tentative Agreement" and dated Jan. 1, the day of the negotiation session.

The commissioner said she could not resolve the apparent discrepancy.

The Department of Administration's opinions are nonbinding; Minnesota courts, however, must give deference to its opinions.

In January, the Lake Park-Audubon School District also cited directives by the Bureau of Mediation Services in withholding tentative contract details until the evening of its board vote.

Mila Koumpilova is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.