WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board and its teachers union may be nearing a resolution of their ongoing contract dispute.
The two sides plan to meet again soon to continue negotiating a settlement.
The board and Education Minnesota-Willmar members have been negotiating for more than a year on a contract covering the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
Negotiations began in April 2015. After more than a dozen meetings and two sessions with a state mediator, the two sides met in a marathon session in May to try to reach a settlement.
In the end, while contract language issues were settled, the two sides remained far apart on salaries.
There have been no meetings since, but about a week ago, longtime board member Mike Reynolds called union negotiator Cindi Kroona on behalf of the board, suggesting the board had a new offer to put on the table which would include negotiating an agreement for the 2015-17 contract and the following two-year contract as well.
High school teacher Melissa Aaker, a member of the union negotiating team, spoke to the board near the end of its meeting Monday afternoon.
Speakers for union negotiators, she said they appreciated Reynolds’ overture.
“We understand you, as a board, share our interest in completing our work on this contract,” Aaker said, and the union is also interested in talking about settling the two contracts at once.
“As we struggle to address the issues created by the statewide teacher shortage and how this is affecting us here,” she said, “we want our contract to be a tool to recruit and retain the best teachers.”
Reynolds said after the meeting that he had discussed the situation with the board’s negotiating team before calling Kroona.
He was glad to see they are also interested in a plan to “finish this one up and get the other one done,” he said. “I think they’re as anxious to wrap this up as we are. ... We’re very optimistic.”
The district may begin work soon on the 2017-19 contracts with other bargaining units, “so next school year we can focus on opening a new school,” he said.
Also Monday, the board approved a 10-year, long-term facilities maintenance plan. The new plan by the state incorporates several previous programs into one budget item for facilities. The new program provides more money for maintenance, which will allow the district to catch up on painting and other smaller projects that often are put off, said Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington.
The board approved two-year transportation contracts with Willmar Bus Service and Palmer Bus Co., which both provide transportation for Willmar’s students. The prices will be renegotiated after the coming school year, as bus routes will change when the district’s new elementary school opens in a year.
The board adopted a resolution setting filing dates for the fall election. The terms of Reynolds, Chairwoman Liz VanDerBill, Jackie Saulsbury and Justin Bos will expire at the end of the year.
Filing will open Aug. 2 and close Aug. 16.