WINONA — As Matt Reuter prepared to deploy overseas as a member of the Air Force Reserve, the Winona teacher found himself entangled in an obscure state law.
Reuter would have to pay the costs of hiring a substitute teacher while he was away serving his country.
At first, the Goodview Elementary School teacher was jolted by the news, not believing what he was hearing.
"I said, 'What? That can't be right,'" Reuter said.
But it was. Reuter's disbelief eventually served as a catalyst for changing a law that uniquely — and, many felt, unfairly — singled out educators. And as he shared his story with others, his shock and surprise would spread to others, including Gov. Mark Dayton, who championed the effort to change the law.
Few knew about state law
As in many other states, Minnesota has a law that makes public-sector employees who leave their jobs for overseas service eligible for a pay differential. It obligates public employers to pay the difference between a person's military pay and civilian wages if the former is smaller.
If a person, for example, makes $50,000 as a public employee but only $30,000 as a service member deployed overseas, the employer puts the difference into an escrow account that the person collects after they return home.
But a quirk in the law enacted in 2004 treated teachers differently than other public employees. It allowed school districts to subtract from the payout the cost of hiring a substitute teacher and temp. In the case of Reuter, who returned from Afghanistan last July, the bill came to $11,300.
A single father of two young boys, Reuter said he began calling elected officials about a law that nobody seemed to know anything about.
"Nobody could believe that there was a law like that in place," Reuter said.
Reuter soon found fellow colleagues willing to promote his cause. One of those was Katy Smith, a fellow Goodview teacher and the state's 2011 Teacher of the Year. While having an honorary lunch with the governor last winter, Smith slipped a card penned by Reuter that described what had happened to him. Dayton read it, put it in his pocket and promised to work on changing the law.
Later, while lobbying with other educators at the Capitol, Reuter got a call from the governor's office saying that Dayton wanted to see him. Meeting in the ornate reception room outside his office, the governor told Reuter that he was dedicated to fixing the law.
"At that point, things really started to get rolling," said Reuter.
The governor's support proved pivotal. Before long, Reuter got a call saying the law had been passed and that his presence was requested for a signing ceremony for the K-12 bill that contained the change.
But passage of the law didn't change the fact that Reuter was still out $11,300. But during a National Education Association's annual conference last month in Washington, where Dayton received the America's Greatest Education Governor Award, Reuter was the star attraction. The governor pointed out Reuter in the audience, and a video featuring Reuter's story was shown to the delegates.
Just as the conference was breaking up, Reuter was approached by a lady from Illinois. She said that the delegates from her state wanted to help raise some of the money to offset his loss. Soon, the issue was taken up by other delegates. A motion was made and passed by the entire delegation to support the effort.
"I was amazed. I had to sit down," Reuter recalled. "It just amazed me that so many people at once would do something like that for somebody they didn't even know."
On Friday, a check for more than $13,000 will be presented to the Winona teacher by Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher at Winona City Hall.
"I never went into this asking for the money back. I never did," Reuter said. "I knew that changing the law was going to help other people."