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District, teachers head to mediation

South Washington County Schools and its teachers union head to mediation next week, but a new contract is not expected to be settled before fall.

District and union negotiators will meet with a state-appointed mediator Monday, July 25, but the two sides acknowledge that even if they reach agreement on a new two-year contract it cannot be finalized until school resumes.

Ahead of mediation, School Board Chairman Ron Kath issued a statement on behalf of the board last week, discussing teacher pay, the timing of negotiations and a "transfer article" that is a key point of contention in contract talks between the district and United Teachers of South Washington County.

Kath said the district wanted mediation in June, but the union could not meet for either of two proposed dates. Kath said union president Marty Fridgen was traveling in July and only was available for mediation July 25. Union leaders indicated they had "no interest" in a vote on a new contract during the summer, Kath said.

"We are more than ready to conclude this process and regret having the delay over the summer months," he said last Thursday.

Fridgen said teachers did not decide against a summer vote due to "logistical complexity."

"We want every member to have a fair opportunity to receive information and be able to vote," she said. "With nearly 1,300 members who have different schedules in the summer it becomes quite difficult to give everyone that fair opportunity."

Teachers have been working without a new contract for a year. Their last contract was supposed to expire June 30, 2015.

The union and district agreed to wait until after the district's November 2015 referendum to start negotiations. After more than a dozen negotiation sessions, they prepared for mediation. They then canceled mediation this spring after reaching a tentative agreement on their own, but teachers rejected that offer 55-45 percent. District and union negotiators agreed to seek mediation after that tentative agreement was voted down.

Mediation is handled through the state's Bureau of Mediation Services. There is no cost to the district or union for the mediation.

The two sides appear to be dug in over the transfer article. The union's current contract uses seniority to determine teacher placement in open positions, or transfers. Principals cannot select teachers to fill the positions.

District negotiators have stressed that it is one of just two school districts in the state with that type of transfer article. Kath said the tentative agreement in April, which altered the transfer policy, would have honored the seniority of more tenured teachers while also giving voice to less-tenured teachers.

Union negotiators agreed to that proposal, but Fridgen said the change was the main reason teachers rejected the tentative agreement.

"We still believe a committee to thoroughly explore the transfer process is what is needed," she said. "The district is opposed to us coming together to work on the transfer language leading us to believe that they do not want to hear or acknowledge our professional voice."

Teacher pay also is an issue in negotiations. The union claims District 833 is losing teachers to surrounding districts that pay more.

Kath said District 833 does pay less on average than seven surrounding districts, but South Washington County Schools' average teacher pay is actually higher than the state average and the average of 48 Twin Cities metropolitan districts.

District 833's average teacher salary for 2015-16 was $59,769, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The state average was $56,812, the state agency reported. Kath said the average of 48 metro districts was $59,484.

"The district has made as generous an offer as possible while maintaining a balanced budget and remaining fiscally responsible stewards of our local taxpayer dollars," Kath said.

Fridgen countered: "What we do know is that we have had and still have people going to other metro districts and making substantially more money. We also know there are several districts that make well over $80,000 on their top stop and we are around $77,000."

All union members who worked the 2015-16 school year will receive retroactive pay when a contract agreement is reached.

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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