‘Tough pill to swallow': Minnesota school workers say they were shortchanged despite snow day relief

Some Minnesota public school employees say their pay has been shortchanged despite a new state law forgiving districts for snow days incurred this winter.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union, said administrators in at least 40 districts have decided not to pay hourly school workers for some of the lost days. Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that he was getting involved and wanted to talk with district administrators about their decisions.

On April 1, Walz signed a bill into law allowing school districts to count snow days as instructional time to meet the state’s minimum requirements. Under the bill, districts that accept the relief must pay their hourly employees – but can avoid doing so if they decline the relief.

“That’s really a tough pill to swallow,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. “It is just the right thing to do, to pay everybody for the missed work that they thought they were going to have.”

It’s unclear how many districts have declined relief and aren’t paying their hourly workers because the state isn’t yet tracking the data. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said districts did not have to provide that information until the end of the school year.

Walz said it was his intent was to ensure hourly workers would be paid after a brutal winter that forced districts across the state to cancel classes for historic snowfall and cold temperatures. In many cases, the workers – bus drivers, teacher aides, cooks and others – are low-wage employees, he has said.

“These are the types of things that really hurt morale and things in school, if you know one group of people missed and got paid, and the other did not,” the governor told reporters Wednesday.

In the Osseo Area Schools, district administrators canceled classes on seven days this year. Hourly workers will be paid for six of them, said Barb Olson, a spokeswoman for the district.

“By accessing four days under the snow days relief bill and adding two makeup school days, the district exceeded instructional time requirements at all grade levels but one; therefore, administrators chose not to access the remaining single day,” Olson said in an emailed statement.

Becky Hespen, president of the education support professionals’ union in the Osseo district, said the lost day meant a lot to her members who rely on the paycheck – and expected to work.

“You hear over and over again what a valued member of the team we are and how they couldn’t run schools without us,” Hespen said. “And then they treat us like we’re not people.”

District administrators declined an interview.

Gary Amoroso, the former Lakeville superintendent and current executive director for the Minnesota Association of School Boards, said none of the districts were trying to shortchange their workers.

“Absolutely not,” Amoroso said in a telephone interview. “The districts are accountable for a certain number of days and a certain number of hours in a school year.”

Walz said he also did not think district administrators had bad intentions, but he did want to talk with them about their reasons.

“In some of these schools, it is simply a cost factor,” the governor said. “I’m not saying they don’t care about their employees. I don’t think they’re making this decision to divide that school. But I do think our intent was pretty clear that folks would be made whole.”