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Willmar teachers rally for a contract

Teachers and people from the community attend the Willmar School Board meeting Monday night in Willmar. Signs read "fair equitable contract now" and "Thanks for supporting Willmar public education." (Briana Sanchez / Tribune)1 / 8
Teachers and other commmunity members gather Monday outside of the Willmar Education and Arts Center before the school board meeting. Attendees wore blue to signify support for educators. Signs read "fair equitable contract now" and "Thanks for supporting Willmar public education." (Briana Sanchez / Tribune)2 / 8
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Teachers and people in the community attend the school board meeting Monday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Signs read "fair equitable contract now" and "Thanks for supporting Willmar public education." (Briana Sanchez / Tribune )8 / 8

WILLMAR — More than 70 Willmar teachers and their supporters rallied Monday afternoon outside the Willmar Education and Arts Center seeking a "fair and equitable" union contract after 20 months of negotiations.

After the rally, many of them went inside WEAC to attend the regular Willmar School Board meeting. Several spoke during the meeting.

Rally speakers urged the teachers to stay strong as they work toward a settlement of a new contract. The previous contract expired June 30, 2015.

High school teacher Ken Heitzman, a member of the union negotiating team, thanked the union members for their dedication to their students and the community.

"This has been a long and frustrating process for everybody," he said. "We need to continue to support each other and stay united, and we will get this done."

Education Minnesota representative Libby Erickson told the teachers, "You are not asking for the moon; you are asking for an average, fair, equitable settlement."

She continued, "Your district has the money; they can afford what you are asking for, so stay strong."

Erickson urged the teachers to attend the board meeting and to sign up to speak. "Stare those school board members in the eye" and keep up the pressure, she said.

The two sides have not had a negotiations session since September. Erickson said at the rally that the union made a request about a month ago to resume negotiations.

The School Board met in a closed meeting Nov. 3 to discuss negotiations strategy and voted to close its regular board meeting Monday for the same reason.

During the board meeting, Ann Hendershott, a middle school social studies teacher, said she was saddened by the district's decision to hire a lawyer to lead negotiations for this contract. The two sides should be able to negotiate without a lawyer involved, she said.

"We need to begin the process of rebuilding trust," she said. "I wonder when we can all begin to heal."

Teachers Bonnie Hauser and Sandra Nelson echoed Hendershott's comments. Hauser said she has never seen teacher morale so low.

Board members said last summer that they planned to keep lawyer Trevor Helmers on the negotiating team until the contract is settled and would be willing to look at other methods for the next contract.

Board and union representatives have been negotiating since April 2015. The old contract expired June 30, 2015, more than 16 months ago. The two sides have met more than a dozen times and participated in two sessions with a state mediator.

Most language issues have been resolved, but there has been no agreement on salary.

In August, the two sides were nearly $1 million apart in their cost estimates of the same proposal. The teachers' estimate was lower.

The union was seeking an increase to the next step in the salary scale for all teachers, plus 2 percent raises in each year. The district offered a total increase of 3.8 percent over the two years of the contract, which the teachers could distribute as they wanted.

The sides met in September to compare the formulas they have been using to calculate the overall dollar value of their proposals. A discrepancy of $754,000, for health savings accounts, was found in the union's formula. The amount was included in one part of the formula but not in another, making the union's cost estimates lower than the district's.

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

(320) 214-4340