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Union talks turn tougher, as negotiations head for mediation

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New players, a different negotiating process and a controversial policy have altered the dynamics of School District 833 teacher contract talks.

Through 11 bargaining sessions the two sides chipped away at some contract terms, but last week they sought mediation after negotiations slowed.

Mediation is used in some school labor contract talks, but it has not been required in at least the past six rounds of South Washington County Schools teacher contracts.

This round is different, both sides acknowledge.

Eyeing higher pay at comparative school districts, the union seeks a sizeable boost in salary increases and wants to retain its ability to transfer teachers into open positions based on seniority. That "transfer article" has been in place since at least the 1970s and is important to the union.

District negotiators say they are bargaining in the best interest of students and taxpayers, and they share the union's goal of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. They've offered annual salary increases and some policy language sought by the union, but the district also wants to change the transfer article so school administrators have the power to fill open positions.

Other factors have altered the contract talks.

The district is coming off a successful voter-approved operating levy increase, and the teachers union spent time and over $7,600 in campaign money to help pass it last fall. Union leaders say teachers accepted small pay increases for several years as they watched surrounding districts settle contracts with larger raises.

"We love our schools, but we also know we're deserving of being given and being offered a fair and competitive contract," said Marty Fridgen, new president of the United Teachers of South Washington County.

Another factor altering this year's negotiating dynamic is the process used.

The union requested to switch from interest-based bargaining to traditional negotiating. The former approach included consensus-building throughout the process and even agreement over what information would be shared publicly while talks were ongoing.

With the traditional process, the two sides have swapped offers in the bargaining room but the process has become more visible to the public.

Out in the open

School Board Chairman Ron Kath last week offered a generally optimistic outlook during a rare detailed, public statement on the status of contract talks.

Kath said they are negotiating in good faith and within the district's financial parameters. They are not behind, when compared to past negotiations, and have found some common ground.

"From my perspective, I think we're well on our way," Kath said during the televised board meeting Thursday.

Kath did not mention that three days earlier the two sides agreed to call in a mediator and that there are no plans to meet again before the nonbinding mediation.

The union has started trying to influence contract talks from outside the bargaining room, too.

More than 200 teachers showed up at two recent board meetings. They donned red union shirts and some carried signs advocating for pay increases, a move not seen in past contract talks.

At one meeting last month, Fridgen stood before the board to lay out the union's position, push for movement on a salary offer and even called out a district negotiator for suggesting that if teachers want more money they should go elsewhere. Fridgen's statement drew loud applause from teachers in the audience.

Kath said later that Fridgen took the district negotiator's comment out of context.

Still, each negotiating team says its goal is to recruit and retain the best teachers for District 833 schools.

Salaries are a sticking point.

Fridgen said the district risks becoming a "training ground" where teachers put in a few years before moving on to higher-paying positions elsewhere.

The union cites Minnesota Department of Education data showing the average District 833 teacher salary in the last contract year was just under $53,800 while the statewide average was about $56,000. Also, the union notes in a negotiations "fact sheet" it's distributing, the average pay for teachers in neighboring districts tops $63,000.

Those figures don't take into account insurance benefits; Fridgen said it's difficult to get an accurate comparison of benefits, but acknowledged that District 833's insurance plans "have been pretty fair" for employees.

In his statement last week, Kath said the district's latest offer included a 2-percent increase in each of the contract's two years, among other benefits.

"We agree with the data that we are below the metro average and we're doing the best we can within the funds available," Kath said in an interview.

Transfers a big issue

The transfer article is the biggest issue weighing on the negotiations, Fridgen said last week. Teachers do not want to lose the ability to fill open positions based on seniority, and Fridgen said they believe student learning benefits when teachers have "a voice and a say" in staffing placement.

"For teachers, it's a huge benefit to have," she said.

It's also unusual in this area. In most surrounding districts teacher placement is an administrative decision.

"The district's best interest is to be able to help place those where we feel the qualifications of a teacher best fits a need at a school," Kath said.

The teachers' contract is the district's last unresolved bargaining unit for the current cycle. Last week the School Board approved new contracts with the unions representing office specialists and Kids Club supervisors.

The teachers union is the largest contract, however, covering some 1,300 teachers and licensed educators. Total compensation to teachers union membership consumes about $121 million of the district's $198 million general fund.

Union members have been more visible in the community in recent weeks. Fridgen said that is in part to express their dedication to the communities in which they work and, in many cases, live. She said it's also part strategy in their bid for a better contract.

The union likely will ask large groups of teachers to attend future board meetings as they await a contract deal.

"We are united," Fridgen said.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus, who is not on the district negotiating team, said in a statement "I can share that I am pleased with the School Board, who is working hard to support our teachers, while keeping a strong eye on our financial situation."

"The district negotiations team continues to bargain in good faith," added Denise Griffith, the leader district negotiator and Human Resources director, in a statement. "We continue to work with the union negotiations team at the table and we are optimistic that we will have a settlement in the near future."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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