MSBA Notes 3 – The right to remain stupid

I had a good long drive down to the MSBA convention on Wednesday and plenty of time to catch up after my week out of town. Art’s ongoing legal work was topic one.

Not to give away Art’s defense his attorney’s are focusing like a laser beam on his first amendment rights which came under assault in Mary Rice’s testimony. Rice claimed that half a dozen statements made by Art and directed at the School Board were derogatory toward the Board. Trust me when I tell you that all of them would have made a Congressman laugh out loud.

It was ironic then when I attended Tuesday’s session on Minnesota’s Labor Law PELRA (Public Employees Labor Relations Act) to hear the legal architect for Art’s removal, Kevin Rupp, giving a spirited defense of the Constitution. One of Art’s attorney’s was a long time attorney for the Minneapolis School District. He shared with Art a couple tricks of the trade which he said he never had to employ. Much of an ambitious Education attorney’s shtick is to scare the bejesus out of School Boards to make them feel naked without legal counsel. I picked up on that big time as I listened to Mr. Rupp waxing eloquent about PELRA.

I’ve written about the Minnesota Miracle often. I wrote a paper on it for my State and Local Government class when it was being debated and passed by the 1971 Minnesota legislature. It was the bipartisan law which took over the lion’s share of spending for K-12 education and put it in the hands of the state instead of local school districts. What I didn’t realize until the MSBA convention was that PELRA went into effect the same year. In other words the legislature decided to pay for most of public education removing the burden from school boards and under PELRA handed Teacher’s unions the right to strike for what had become 70 percent state money. How did this work out?

I was a teacher by 1974 and I remember reading in fascination about all the teacher’s strikes that were mushrooming around the state. The two Teacher’s unions that of that time were feuding to expand their membership at the other’s expense. It was amusement to hear the hardened AFT point its finger at the formerly goody-goody MEA and howl that they were striking too often. After all, it was the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) that belonged to the AFL-CIO. The Minnesota Education Association was practically the Chamber of Commerce.

In short order the legislature realized that it had opened up Pandora’s Box and that they were getting the blame for state tax increases while the innocent little school board’s were happy to give away the state’s money rather than have school close for a strike.

It only took nineteen years from 1971 to 1990 for public education spending to get out of hand. Coincidentally the DNT reprinted a great St. Paul Press story about state’s finances yesterday. Public Education and Health costs have pushed all other spending aside:

In 1990, health care and K-12 education ate up 44 percent of Minnesota’s general fund. But this year, that had soared to 66% – $2 out of every $3. “The story adds that in 1990 “adjusting for inflation, the 1990 budget spent just less than $4 billion on K-12 education.” Today it gets $8.1 billion.

The primary change to the PELRA last year was the creation of a Board to hear ULP’s – Unfair Labor Practice complaints. Apparently only three other state’s have failed to set up such a board and it means that suddenly it won’t be that expensive to file a ULP. The worrying part of Mr. Rupp’s presentation was that school district’s may suddenly become inundated with unfair labor suits which, of course, Mr. Rupp would be happy to defend districts from. Cue the ghost noises.

Our other presenter, Mr. Tolson head of the Bureau of Mediation Services did pour some water on the fire by telling us that where management and labor work amicably such suits are unlikely to proliferate. Whew!

I surely wouldn’t want interfere with Mr. Rupp’s sales pitch to new clients but I did find it ironic that he spent so much time warning school board members that employees have First Amendment rights. He told us that PELRA not only extends to our employee’s the right of free expression but that alarmingly it is also protected by the United State’s Constitution. How ironic it is that this is exactly what Mr. Rupp is helping our School Board deprive Art Johnston of.

Art told me that his attorneys have already sent Mr. Rupp their strong warnings against attempting to abridge Art Johnston’s right of free speech. I hope Mr. Rupp sees fit to pass their warning on to the School Board because our Board does not as yet realize the financial implications.

Art would not be the first elected official to be penalized for speaking his mind. Previous Federal cases have not gone well for the public bodies that tried to shut up one of their own. In fact, in federal court where Art’s case is heading, such deprivation of free speech has come back to haunt the censors. Several times court costs have been awarded to the target of the censorship to the tune of a million dollars and more.

Heck, a million dollars is better than ten teachers. That’s a helluva price to pay for peeing on the Constitution. But don’t worry. Kevin Rupp will make money no matter how the case goes. That’s all that counts.