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Stalled: School district, teacher union in standoff over part-time teacher issue in new contract

WILLMAR — A dispute over contract language governing the time of part-time teachers has apparently derailed everything else accomplished in contract negotiations between the Willmar School Board and its teachers.

Education Minnesota Willmar and the district’s negotiating team have met 20 times and had two mediation sessions. The groups had reached tentative agreements on a long list of issues, but at the end of a June 2 mediation session, board negotiators took all previous agreements off the table.

The School Board’s negotiating committee gave an update during a board meeting this week.

No further meetings have been scheduled to discuss the 2013-15 teacher contract.

Committee chairman Nathan Streed said salary and the part-time teacher language were the only things unsettled before the June 2 meeting.

“We want to do what’s fair to our employees,” Streed said, but the contract must also be fair to the district.

The board’s salary proposal was for a 3 percent raise in the first year of the contract and a 0.75 percent increase in the second year. With accompanying increases in benefit costs, the total package for the two years would be an increase of 6.45 percent, he said.

EM President Tammie Knapper said in a phone interview this week that she believed the district and the teachers could come to an agreement on salary without difficulty.

The biggest problem for both sides is agreeing on how to divide a part-time teacher’s job between classroom time and preparation time.

Knapper said that her bargaining unit wants to keep the current language for part-time teachers in the contract.

The current contract does not include specific percentages for dividing a part-time teacher’s day. The district wants to change the contract to include percentages.

“If we could get the part-time issue worked out to meet our needs and their needs, we would have had a settled contract,” Knapper said.

The union feels all teachers should be treated equally, she said, and fears that the new language could lead to unequal treatment.

Liz Fischer, the district’s human resources director, said the percentages proposed would mirror the split in a full-time teacher’s day.

Just 20 of the district’s 350 teachers work part-time in the district, Streed said.

Streed and committee members Mike Reynolds and Mike Carlson expressed frustration with the stalemate, which Streed said is keeping the other 330 teachers from getting a contract settlement.

They said that the first mediation session was nine hours long, and the mediator spent more of that day with the union. Board members spoke with him about one hour and 20 minutes and spent the rest of the day waiting, Carlson said.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Carlson said. “We can request another mediation date; I personally don’t know if it would accomplish anything.”

Reynolds said he felt that the district had made more movement to reach agreements than the union had. In some cases, he said, “we got nothing in return.”

Knapper disputed that.

“I wouldn’t agree that they would come closer, and we’d move away,” she said. “We have had agreement on a lot of issues; I think both sides gave to get there.”

The teachers may want a new contract settled more than the district does, she said. “We’ve been working without one for a year, and we definitely would like to have it settled.”

Board members discussed ways to move forward. Reynolds suggested waiting until fall and negotiating two contracts at once, the one that would have started in 2013 and the next one, which would begin in summer 2015.

Because the district’s finances are likely to become tighter in the next few years, negotiating four years at once could make sense, Carlson added.

Knapper said she has heard of districts working on two contracts at once, but she’d rather see them settled separately.

Streed they could also seek arbitration or wait for the union to request another meeting.

Knapper suggested that the two sides could reach an agreement on salary and take all the agreements but the part-time teacher language to a vote. The two sides could go to arbitration over that one issue, she said.

“(The union) and the district have worked hard to come to agreement on these topics; I don’t want to take away from that,” Knapper said. “We’ve got this one left, and I’m hopeful that we will come to an agreement.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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