Gap remains between teachers, boardPublished 11:32am Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Fergus Falls School District and the district’s teachers union still have significant differences in their negotiations for a financial package increase as part of the current teacher’s contract settlement, according to school board member Melanie Cole.
Cole provided The Journal with information today that the school district offered a 3.5 percent increase to the financial package at the last mediation session with the union on March 19, while the Fergus Falls Education Association last offered an 8.8 percent increase.
According to district business manager Mark Masten, the district’s offer would increase the school’s current teacher compensation budget (approximately $11 million right now) by $385,000, while the union’s offer would increase the budget by $960,000.
Teachers union co-president Steve Olson could not confirm the percentages without speaking to the lead negotiators for the union; he did note that percentages of package increases can be calculated different ways.
Though much of the negotiation process can legally be made public, the school district had been keeping its dealings under wraps in order to work out the contracts quietly and without controversy, Cole explained.
“Out of deference to the teachers, quite frankly I didn’t want to tell the public immediately what (the teachers union) first came to the table with because it would outrage (residents),” said Cole.
She said the first offer from the union back in September came in at a “conservatively estimated” 18 percent. Masten noted that typical negotiation strategy involves both sides starting with numbers they know they won’t receive.
Cole, who supplied The Journal with the negotiation numbers independently of the school board, changed her mind about the benefits of confidentiality because she decided that the public needed a more thorough picture of what the terms were. She recently received more than 200 form letter-style postcards from area residents (distributed, she said, by the teacher’s union) urging her to find “a fair and equitable settlement” for the teacher’s contract.
Virtually none of those people, she said, are aware of what is happening behind the scenes, and none of them had asked for the district’s side of the story before sending the postcards.
“One of the most difficult things as a board member is to not have people ask me what we’re doing or why we’re doing it,” she said, adding, “I’m disappointed that more people don’t ask questions of me or the other board members.”
Though Olson could not provide exact dollar amounts being negotiated, he explained that the teacher’s union is concerned about the increase of insurance compensation (the district has given only one increase in the last four years, he said), as well as the reinstatement of two salary measurement tools called “steps” and “lanes.”
Steps, explained Olson, are a measure of how long a teacher has worked with a school. Under normal circumstances, he said, a teacher “moves down” one step for every year he or she works at a school, receiving the pay and benefit level accorded to each new step. Each lane, on the other hand, measures 15 graduate credits that a teacher pays for out of pocket. When a teacher earns enough credits, he or she “moves to the right” into the next lane, which also has certain compensation rules.
“The ultimate goal is to get to the bottom right hand quarter of the salary schedule,” said Olson.
An average school salary schedule might contain somewhere around 18 steps and six lanes, he noted.
The problem, Olson said, is that the school district has frozen the teachers’ steps three of the last four years, essentially keeping them in the current compensation tier when they normally would move to the next level. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers don’t get pay raises, as districts often supply a pay increase to offset the step freezing.
Reinstating steps is one of the union’s primary goals this year, said Olson. When it comes to how much each step will be worth, “the dollar amount is negotiable.”
Cole, however, is less concerned with the specifics of how costs break down and more concerned about the overall cost to the district.
“We haven’t gotten funding from the Legislature to support salary increases for many years,” she said, noting the $50 per student increase approved by the Legislature last year is negligible compared to the amount the Legislature is keeping in delayed payments.
When it comes to calculating increases to the teacher’s contract, she said, everything from wage increases to an extra paid day off to more sick days is considered.
“Everything that has a cost to the district goes into the mix,” she said.
Masten said the average teacher working for the district would receive an $800 salary increase in each of the contract’s two years under the district’s offer, while the union’s offer would give the average teacher a $1,185 increase each year. The district offer does not increase health insurance spending in either year; the union offer increases the average insurance spending by $3,234 per teacher the first year and does not increase the second year.
The first year of the contract would be retroactively compensated, as it started in 2011 and ends in July.
Though she respects Fergus Falls’ teachers, Cole said they should not be exempt from the belt-tightening that has affected every other level of government.
“I’m constantly mystified why this segment of public employees doesn’t get lumped in with the state and the city and county employees who … get their salaries frozen,” she said.
Masten and Olson, however, are hopeful that the district and the union can reach an agreement soon. The next mediation session between the two parties takes place on May 9.
“The (March) mediation session brought some significant progress,” said Masten.