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Union contract mediation between teachers, District 833 is set

There was standing-room only in the District 833 School Board room Thursday, March 17, as the teachers union pleaded its points in front of the board, even as contract mediation is scheduled for South Washington County Schools and its teachers union.

District negotiators and representatives of United Teachers of South Washington County will meet with a state-appointed mediator April 20, the union said prior to the recent board meeting.

The district and teachers union were negotiating a new two-year contract before talks slowed in late February. The union said district officials believed they were at an impasse. They jointly filed for mediation.

While a mediator has been assigned, the two sides could meet together to resume negotiations, union president Marty Fridgen said.

“The possibility is still out there,” she said. However, she said their positions have not changed.

Denise Griffith, the district’s lead contract negotiator and human resources director, said no meetings are planned but the district team would be willing to continue negotiating between now and April 20.

The last contract term ended June 30, 2015, and teachers have been working under that contract since then. The district already has settled contracts with all other employee unions.

Teacher contract negotiations started after the district’s referendum in November and went for 11 sessions. Sticking points in negotiations included salary increases and a proposal to change how teaching positions are filled in District 833 schools.

Teachers said their pay ranks below the state average and further below the average salaries of teachers in nearby and comparative districts, and they point to above-average administrative salaries. School district leaders say they have been bargaining in good faith and are doing the best they can to raise teacher salaries within budget limits.

The two sides are also stuck on a teacher transfer article in the contract. The long-existent policy uses seniority as a basis for filling teaching positions. Union leaders said that is important to teachers and serves students well, but district negotiators want a new policy giving school administrators control over the process to fill teaching vacancies.

On this point, Fridgen, the union’s new leader, spoke during the board meeting March 17, saying that the existing teacher transfer policy amounts to giving teachers a voice in decision making.

“A teacher’s voice does matter,” she said.

The union plans to continue its visible presence in schools and at the District 833 School Board. It has held a few large rallies, including last meeting, during which some 200 teachers showed up for board meetings.

“Thank you for coming out,” Board chairman Ron Kath said to Fridgen and the crowd. “We look forward to keeping the dialogue going, going forward.”

Fridgen said many people still do not know teachers are without a new contract.

“It keeps it out there that we want to settle, we want a chance to get this finished,” Fridgen said of the rallies.

The union includes roughly 1,300 teachers and other licensed staff. Their salary and benefits make up about $121 million of the district’s $198 general fund.

The nonbinding mediation is conducted by the state Bureau of Mediation Services and is paid for by the state.

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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