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Willmar teachers, district to negotiate Dec. 20

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board and its teachers have scheduled a contract negotiations session for Dec. 20. It will be the first meeting since September between the two sides.

During a board workshop Monday, the school district provided budget information and the board's rationale for trying to keep raises for Education Minnesota-Willmar members on par with the district's other bargaining units.

Board treasurer Laura Warne and the board's lead negotiator Mike Reynolds spoke for the board. More than a dozen union members were at the meeting to hear the presentation at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Negotiations on the 2015-17 two-year contract began in April 2015. The teachers have been working under their old contract since it expired on June 30, 2015.

The two sides have had more than a dozen meetings and a couple mediation sessions. They have signed tentative agreements on language issues but remain apart on salaries.

The presentation Monday included a discussion of the district's financial goals and the common goals of the district and its employees.

Warne said the board and employees share a desire to do what's best for kids, and the board wants to provide fair salary increases for all its employees and to operate in a fiscally responsible manner.

The district needs to do what it can to avoid statutory operating debt, Reynolds said. Statutory operating debt occurs when the district's general fund balance falls below limits set by the state. In the early 2000s, statutory operating debt led to major budget cuts, he said.

At that time, the board set a policy of having a general fund balance of 6 percent of annual expenditures.

"We need to have a fund balance, a cushion for unforeseen costs," Reynolds said.

The 2015-16 audit indicated a fund balance of 15.29 percent, Warne said, but "it is considered to be overstated because we haven't settled the contract."

Once back pay is provided to the teachers, she said, it could drop to the 2015 level of about 12 percent.

Board members have said they plan to maintain a fund balance this year, because the district will be opening a new elementary school and two building additions in 2017. The bond approved by voters in a referendum includes funding for equipping and furnishing the new spaces, but board members want to be ready for unexpected costs.

The district's current offer to the teachers is 3.8 percent increase in salary and benefits over the two-year contract. That is projected to cost the district an additional $963,000 over the two years.

The teachers' proposal is estimated at 7.1 percent over the two years, a total cost of about $1.8 million.

Settlements for other employee bargaining units have ranged from 3.8 percent to 4.3 percent.

If the district's proposal were adopted, no budget cuts would be needed for the next two years, and the fund balance would stay above 6 percent, Warne said.

With the teachers' proposal, Warne said, the district would be looking at budget cuts for the 2018-19 school year, class sizes would increase, and staffing and programs would be affected.

Reynolds addressed the teachers' objections to the district hiring a lawyer to lead negotiations.

Contract talks had become difficult in recent years, he said, and board members from other school districts said hiring an attorney had worked out well for them.

The attorney cost through September was $28,000, he said. "It was our hope that it would lead to a quicker and faster settlement; so far that hasn't worked out."

Reynolds said the board wanted to finish the current contract and then would work with the union to find a new negotiation procedure.

"Our goal is to have fair and equitable salary increases for all of our employees," Reynolds said.

After the presentation, union president Tammy Knapper said, "We do appreciate the hard work of the district and their fiscal responsibility."

She continued, "we do question some of the assumptions that were made, and we look forward to meeting with them on Dec. 20."

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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