Union sues New Richland schools

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 11, 2006

By Reed Waller, New Richland Star

NEW RICHLAND &045;&160;Education Minnesota-NRHEG, the union representing teachers in New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva Public Schools District 2168, is filing suit against the district and Superintendent Richard Lorenz for alleged violations of the Employment Labor Relations Act.

Last week, Education Minnesota-NRHEG issued a press release stating that the lawsuit alleges several violations of labor laws by the administration and by Lorenz specifically, including the forced transfer and replacement of elementary teacher and union activist Julie Economy, obstruction of union activities, unlawful deduction from teacher’s salaries in a contract-related adjustment and withholding information.

The suit claims that Economy was transferred unnecessarily, and then replaced with a new teacher rather than being returned to her &8220;own area of expertise&8221; when it was offered again.

It further claims that Economy was reprimanded and ignored by the district administration when raising questions about expenditure of funds.

It also claims Lorenz refused or delayed responses to requests for public information, such as names of school board candidates and financial data necessary for contract negotiation.

Christina Clark, the attorney for the teachers, claims &8220;an ongoing atmosphere of fear and intimidation&8221; by Lorenz and the school board.

The lawsuit seeks more than $50,000 in damages.

Attorney for the district, James E. Knutson of Knutson, Flynn & Deans of Mendota Heights, in a statement issued Monday, responded by calling the lawsuit &8220;disingenuous&8221; and &8220;a personal attack against the character of Superintendent Richard Lorenz.&8221;

&8220;During my 43 years of practicing law Š&160;I have experienced such an unjustifiable attack in only a few other cases,&8221; Knutson said.

Knutson’s statement claims that Economy was transferred rather than another first grade teacher who had eight more years of seniority, and that fifth grade lies within Economy’s area of expertise in accordance with standards.

The attorney for the district referred to the other charges as &8220;patently false,&8221; and said that the numerous time-consuming requests for information demanded by Education Minnesota &8220;appeared to be harassment.&8221;

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 11, and attorneys are scheduled to take Lorenz’s deposition June 22.

This is the first legal action taken against the New Richland school district in at least 20 years.

In May 2005, after two years of negotiation, Education Minnesota-NRHEG and the NRHEG School District ratified and approved a new master contract, representing a total percent increase of 8.51 percent over two years. Negotiations suffered several long delays when the Education Minnesota negotiator was unable to attend scheduled meetings.

The average total pay increase of 163 other Minnesota schools the size of NRHEG who reached settlements by early 2005, was between 7.4 and 7.7 percent. NRHEG now stands above average in its teacher salary level, even though the district’s revenue lies in the bottom 4 percent.

Later last year, in a cutback move anticipating a decline in enrollment and increasing budget restrictions, one elementary and one special education position were eliminated by attrition, and one half-time elementary and one sixth grade contract were not renewed. Subsequently new funding was made available and elementary enrollment took an unexpected temporary increase, and new hires were reluctantly approved &045; though enrollment was still fluctuating and it was uncertain how long the positions would remain.

Last July, Lorenz delayed answering requests for the names of school board candidates for several days, until the filing withdrawal period had expired and the filings were final, to give candidates opportunity to withdraw before their names were published.