FARGO — Contract negotiations between the Fargo School Board and the teachers union are on pause for the summer. This is the second time in three years the groups have struggled to reach an agreement.

If a deal isn't struck before the start of the school year, negotiations could continue into the school year. Teachers would work based on the 2018-19 contract until a new contract is determined, according to Rebecca Knutson, president of the school board.

If negotiations run into gridlock, the groups could declare an official impasse and enlist the help of the State Fact-Finding Commission, which would review the positions of both sides and make a recommendation. This happened in 2017, and the commission's recommendation was not jointly accepted, resulting in the school board unilaterally ratifying a one-year contract.

Contract stalemates like Fargo's have led to strikes across the country in recent years. But in North Dakota, it's illegal for teachers to strike and educators have no plans to stage a boycott, said Jenifer Mastrud, vice president of the teachers union, known as the Fargo Education Association.

So, what options do North Dakota teachers have?

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Teachers in North Dakota are prohibited from striking, and a school district can withhold wages from anyone participating in a strike. It is illegal for teachers to strike in 35 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Teacher strikes are legal in Minnesota.

But just because striking is illegal doesn't necessarily mean the consequences are more severe for strikers.

In any state, courts can order teachers back into classrooms for denying services, and impose fines on unions. But because most states, including North Dakota, don't specify penalties for engaging in an illegal strike (other than withholding wages), it's less likely illegal strikers will face any additional consequences, such as losing their jobs.

Teachers are also less likely to be fired for striking because it would be difficult for the school district to fill the vacancies if teachers were fired, according to Jami Lund, senior policy analyst specializing in union and collective bargaining in public schools at the Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

The way in which schools are funded also makes consequences for striking limited.

Each state funds and guarantees 180 days of school each year. If teachers strike, the missed school days are added onto the end of the year. Ultimately, the number of school days remains unchanged.

“It’s like moving the start date of the school year,” Lund said.

Teacher strikes on the rise

Nationally, teacher strikes have increased in the past two years.

After striking in 2018, West Virginia teachers saw a 5% wage increase. Arizona teachers won a 20% hike over three years. In Los Angeles, a teachers strike in January led to a 6% salary bump, a reduction in class sizes and more support staff.

However, not all strikes resulted in victories for educators. Strikes in Kentucky and Oklahoma were less successful.

While strikes may become more common, most think teacher strikes are unlikely to happen in North Dakota anytime soon.

“Frankly, I’d be shocked if that happened in North Dakota,” said Dale Wetzel, spokesperson for the state Department of Public Instruction.

What's next?

Fargo teacher contract negotiations are expected to resume Aug. 26, but ultimately the final decisions lie in the school board’s hands.

The school board has most of the power, Wetzel said. Ultimately, they decide which contract elements to adopt.

This year, Fargo teachers are arguing for higher wages, increased prep time, and more protections for teachers hurt in the line of work, including 12 days of emergency leave if a student injures a teacher.

Teachers are free agents in the summer. This means teachers can seek employment in other districts and are not obligated to return to their former school until a new contract is signed. The longer teachers go without a contract, the more likely teachers will seek employment in a new district, the union worries, potentially affecting teacher retention and the ability to attract new teachers.

Union officials say they are optimistic about reaching a contract agreement before the start of school so teachers can enter classrooms on time this fall.

Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or ebeyer@forumcomm.com.

An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about teacher strikes. North Dakota has had at least one teacher strike; it happened in Minot in 1969.