Gavel

Three Anoka County residents are suing the Anoka-Hennepin School District and the local teachers union over alleged violations of state labor laws.

Plaintiffs Don Huizenga, Nancy Powell and Jim Bendtsen are alleging that teachers are being granted leave to participate in union-organized political advocacy, according to the lawsuit filed Oct. 30.

“As a taxpayer of District 11, I should never be forced to pay for AHEM’s political speech,” Huizenga said in a statement, referring to Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota by an acronym. “There is no basis for our school district providing workers for AHEM for its favored political activities using our tax dollars. This illegal subsidy has to end.”

The lawsuit was announced by the Upper Midwest Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs in the case. The group is a nonprofit law firm that describes its mission as initiating pro-freedom litigation, protecting against government overreach, special interest agendas and public union corruption.

Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota is allowed 100 days of leave per year for union business, according to the current working agreement between the district and union. The union then reimburses the district for substitute teacher costs.

The plaintiffs say that the union’s reimbursement to the district for substitutes is less than what the district pays its full-time teachers per day. The substitute rates for teachers are $135 to $145 per day, but a teacher is paid the equivalent of $227.47 to $561.89 per day, according to the complaint.

“Students, no matter what they look like or where they come from, need their educators to advocate for them and the children in the Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools are no exception,” AHEM President Val Holthus said. “But now a few activists have brought a lawsuit intended to make it harder for educators to negotiate for better learning and working conditions inside our schools, and more difficult to talk to parents and other decision-makers about what our students need to thrive. The Anoka-Hennepin School Board and Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota negotiated our system of leaves because we both know the two sides often need to talk when classes are in session and we know that for our district to make the best case for our students, no matter their race, gender or religion, classroom educators occasionally need to meet with legislators on the lawmakers’ schedules. Our union is committed to doing all we can to prepare all our students for successful lives. This latest attack on our educators’ freedom to work in union for the good of our students and our district won’t change that.”

The complaint alleges the agreement violates sections of the Minnesota Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota Public Employees Labor Relations Act.

The plaintiffs argue the leave granted to teachers violates Article 11, sections 1 and 2 of the Minnesota Constitution, because it causes the school to subsidize union leave using taxpayer dollars.

Article 11, section 1 of the state constitution prohibits money being paid out of the treasury unless appropriated by law. Section 2 prohibits the credit of the state from aiding any individual, association or corporation.

The complaint argues the school unconstitutionally gives the credit of the state to the union, because the school district is an arm of the state, and the union falls within the constitutional definition of an association.

The plaintiffs also argue that the agreement violates state law by having no public purpose, because it only benefits the union and not taxpayers.

The plaintiffs also say the agreement violates the public employee labor relations act because the teachers are paid their full salary using tax dollars while taking union leave without the full compensation to the district.

The complaint outlines two specific alleged violations of the labor act. First, the act prohibits public employers from “contributing other support” to a union. The plaintiffs claim the district violates this portion of the law when it is not fully reimbursed for the time off teachers take. Plaintiffs also claim the agreement violates the clause prohibiting employees from causing an employer to pay for services which are not performed.

Finally plaintiffs argue the action violates the 1st Amendment, because it forces them to subsidize unwanted political advocacy, according to the complaint.

Plaintiffs request the court declare an injunction prohibiting the union from taking teachers from work without full reimbursement of wages and benefits and require the union to pay the past six years of under-reimbursed union leave taken by teachers.

This isn’t the first time Huizenga has sued the district. He also brought a lawsuit, along with the Minnesota Voters Alliance, over a brochure the district circulated ahead of three 2011 levy referendums. The suit claimed the brochure was promotional, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that it was not.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District is reviewing the litigation and could not provide a comment at this time.

This article was updated 11/09/2020 to include comments made by AHEM President Val Holthus.

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