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Paynesville Press - October 26, 2005

District reaches tentative agreement with teachers

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville Area School District has reached a tentative agreement with its teachers' union on a new two-year contract.

The tentative agreement - both the members of the teachers' union and the school board still need to ratify the contract - includes a 3.75 percent increase the first year (2005-06) and a 4.5 percent increase the second year (2006-07), totaling 8.25 percent over two years.

The settlement appears to be just below the state average for teacher contracts. With 37 districts reporting settlements to the Minnesota School Board Association so far, the average settlement is 8.41 percent over two years while Paynesville's is 8.25 percent over two years. Settlements range from 4.8 percent over two years for Cromwell-Wright to 11.89 percent over two years for Chaska.

Among outstate districts of a similar size (76-125 teachers), Paynesville's contract again is slightly below the average settlement of 8.39 percent for two years.

The teacher settlements seem based on the state's increase of eight percent in aid over these two years. Once again, Paynesville was able to come to an agreement relatively early, with only a minority of districts having settled before them.

This year, a driving force for the early settlement was a new insurance option for the teachers. In addition to the normal three coverage plans offered to teachers, a new plan will include a high deductible and a health savings account for teachers. This plan might be ideal for a young person who is relatively healthy, said teacher Dave Wilke, the table negotiater for the teacher's union.

Under the proposed contract, the district contribution towards health insurance would increase from $4,700 per year to $4,800 per year for both years of the contract. The top insurance plan has a yearly premium of $14,000, noted teacher Bill Brinkman, the chairman of the teacher's negotiating committee, so insurance premiums are a big concern for teachers.

In order to offer the new alternative, the teacher's union must notify Blue Cross/Blue Shield by Tuesday, Nov. 1, giving impetus to reaching an agreement on the contract. Teachers who wish to switch to the new insurance plan would start in January.

The new contract also includes nearly 650 grammatical changes. Some of these were as simple as punctuation marks, and others were for clarity, to always refer to the teachers' union as "teachers" and to the school district as "district."

The district had had the contract reviewed by a specialist from the Minnesota School Board Association, who recommended most of these grammatical changes, said superintendent Todd Burlingame. "It was time consuming to go through all that," said Burlingame.

The negotiating committee for the school district - Burlingame and school board members Mark Dingmann, Allen Schmidt, and Tami Stanger - first met with the teacher's negotiating committee - Connie Backes, Brinkman, Jane Leitzman, Wilke, and Tim Woehler - last May. They met monthly over the summer and weekly this fall, meeting 11 times before reaching a tentative agreement on Monday, Oct. 17.

Because of all the wording changes, a revised contract was not expected to be made available to the teachers until this week. Teachers then have three days to review the contract before a union vote, expected either late this week or next week. The contract is expected to be brought to the school board at their meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

The most significant wording changes involved the sixth grade teachers. When the last two-year contract was written, the district was considering where the sixth grade would be located, either at the middle school or the elementary school. Now, the district seems set on a K-5 elementary school and a 6-12 secondary school, and language changes were made in the contract to define sixth grade teachers as such. (Due to sharing of teachers between the middle school and high school, these teachers are contracted to teach five periods, with one hour of supervision, and one hour for prep.)

Other changes to the tentative contract include:

*Including six weeks for adoption leave (similar to the child birth leave, with teachers using sick days, if they have them accumulated).

*Adding a voluntary sick leave bank, where teachers would volunteer to join the bank by giving two of their sick days. If a teacher would run out of sick days, they could use days from the bank until qualifying for long-term disability.

*Limiting the top step on the pay grid to teacher's who earn a master's degree (applies only to new hires). While all current teachers are grandfathered into using the current pay grid, new teachers would be limited to BA45 and would need to get a master's degree to reach the top of the pay scale. Current teachers can reach the top of the pay scale with BA90 and enough years of experience.

*And changing the formula for figuring retirement severance pay from 72 percent of accumulated sick days to 75 percent of accumulated sick days.

Salaries comprise nearly 80 percent of the school budget, with teacher salaries comprising nearly 50 percent plus influencing the settlements by other staff. Reaching a settlement with the teachers should help the district to revise its budget for 2005-06, said Burlingame. Once their annual audit is done this fall, the district will have a clearer picture on its financial situation and a better guide for any needed budget reductions next year due to declining enrollment, Burlingame added.

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