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Paynesville Press - Nov. 5, 2003

District reaches tentative agreement with teachers

By Michael Jacobson

The teaching staff at School District #741 have reached a tentative agreement with the district on a new two-year contract.

The teacher's union voted and approved the contract proposal on Monday, during quarterbreak day. The tentative agreement now needs to be ratified by the school board to become official. It is expected to be on the board's agenda at their next meeting on Monday, Nov. 10.

The contract calls for a four percent total compensation increase for the 2003-04 school year (of which 2.8 percent is salary increases) and a 3.25 percent total compensation increase in 2004-05 (of which 2.06 percent is salary increases). This amounts to a total increase of 7.25 percent over two years.

That settlement appears to be about average for the state, though a majority of districts have yet to settle. Of the 38 teacher settlements reported to the Minnesota School Board Association through Monday, the average compensation increases were 4.23 percent in the 2003-04 and 3.71 percent in 2004-05.

The local increases also appear to be about average using settlement figures from Education Minnesota. "As far as we can, we're right on the money as far as average," said Bill Brinkman, chairman of the teacher's negotiating team.

The teacher's negotiators and district representatives met monthly starting in May 2003. They quickly got together on their numbers. "It didn't take too long to get pretty close," said superintendent Howard Caldwell, who served on the district negotiating committee.

The teachers knew that the district had budgeted around four percent annual increases in expenditures for inflation in their Statutory Operating Debt plan, said Murry Rafferty, who was the chief negotiator for the teachers. So the teachers had realistic expectations, added Brinkman.

"We came in with the idea that we reach a good settlement for both parties," explained Rafferty.

Teachers face rising living costs that make salary increases necessary, noted Brinkman and Rafferty, particularly when it comes to insurance. Health insurance costs for teachers rose 20 percent in 2003-04.

Part of the nonsalary schedule increases in the tentative contract is an increase of $450 in the district contribution for health insurance coverage in 2003-04. Still, most teachers face increases in their premiums of more than $450.

Then, in 2004-05, the increase in the district's contribution for health insurance is $200, while insurance costs for teachers could go up another 10 to 20 percent. "We weren't even able to cover the increase in insurance," said Brinkman. "Next year, it could go up another 15 percent, and of course that would come out of our pockets."

The tentative two-year contract also includes some other changes. For instance, teachers would now be able to take bereavement leave for the death of a parent, child, or spouse for up to three days, which no longer are sick days. The contract also raises district payments for early retirement by two percent and increases pay for security supervision to $30, as it was difficult to hire supervisors for only $15.

The new contract would also allow teachers to accumulate up to five personal days. Currently, teachers earn two personal days per year and can accumulate up to four. They will still get two per year but would be able to accumulate up to five now.

Another change is not in the contract but is a verbal agreement between the teachers and the district. The district has agreed to start tracking sick leave in hourly increments, not in days and half days.

Coaches, noted Brinkman and Rafferty, were willing to accept no pay increases for the next two years in the hopes that the district would consider raising their athletic budgets instead. The district will look at this when it comes time to budget, said Caldwell, but can make no promises, especially in the face of needing to make more budget cuts.

Staff salaries comprise nearly 80 percent of the school district budget, said Caldwell, with the salaries for nearly 80 licensed teachers comprising nearly half of the district's annual expenditures. Settling for less than the amount budgeted in the Statutory Operating Debt plan should reduce the need to do some of the budget cuts in the plan, but the district still faces stagnant state aid and declining enrollment, Caldwell said.

The district could not afford this contract without the levy passed by voters in April 2002, which gave the district about a seven percent revenue increase for 2003-04, Caldwell said. "Can we do this forever? Not without some increase from the state," said Caldwell. "The state is going to have to provide us with some dollars to educate our children or school districts and schools are going to suffer across the state."

Negotiating the contract settlement for the teachers were Connie Backes, Brinkman, Jane Leitzman, Rafferty, Dave Wilke, and Tim Woehler. Negotiating for the district were Caldwell and board members Mark Dingmann, Maurice Dosdall, and Allen Schmidt.

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