School snow day relief moves at glacial pace at Capitol

Minnesota lawmakers grew visibly frustrated and then broke up Tuesday without deciding how to deal with the school snow days that piled up this winter.

District officials are asking lawmakers to quickly wipe away days so schools don’t have to hold classes deep into June. Teachers say lawmakers should also force districts to pay hourly employees who didn’t work on the days snow canceled classes.

The House and Senate have passed competing versions of a snow day relief package. As the weather warms, negotiators met for the first time Tuesday on a conference committee.

“This is becoming way too political. And, God forbid, I’m a politician now,” said state Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, a former teacher who grew visibly frustrated by the end of the committee’s meeting. Lawmakers were scheduled to return to the negotiating table Tuesday evening. 

A polar vortex in late January followed by record snowfall in February forced many districts to cancel several days of school. Some have already adjusted their calendars to make up for lost time.

School administrators are still looking to lawmakers for relief.

“Every day we wait is one less day for districts to make decisions,” said Gary Amoroso, who represents school superintendents. “I do know that if nothing comes out of this conference committee, I guarantee you that no districts will benefit.”

The House’s bill wiped away just three weather-related days, while the Senate forgives districts for all snow days incurred this winter. 

Yet the major sticking point has to do with worker pay: specifically, whether the state should force districts to pay hourly workers, such as bus drivers and teacher aides, who didn’t work because of canceled classes.

Gov. Tim Walz split the difference on the two versions when asked by a reporter Tuesday. Walz said he favored wiping away all snow days like the Senate did, while requiring compensation for hourly workers as the House mandated.

“When we have a day off and if we’re compensating our classroom teacher, not compensating the bus driver, the lunch room folks, I don’t think that’s the right way to go,” Walz said. “So I am asking them to make them whole – or as whole as they can be.”

Matt Bruns, a special education teacher in Hastings, told lawmakers on the conference committee that many hourly employees struggle to pay their bills. Bruns estimated that some had lost out on $900 in February alone.

“I believe if a school district is to be made whole for their snow days, so too should hourly staff,” Bruns said. “You can imagine the financial scramble many were placed in when nine working days were lost in a single month.”

District administrators said a state mandate could interfere with contracts that districts have with their employee unions.

“I’m respecting those decisions by the local (school) boards,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Boards.

Schneidawind said many school boards have already adjusted their calendars as if no legislation will pass.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, bristled at the idea that Minnesota would be going easy on its students by forgiving so many snow days. Nelson is a former teacher, and her father was a school superintendent.

“Let’s just reassure everyone,” she said. “No, Minnesotans have not grown soft. This was an abnormal winter.”