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Willmar board, teachers take tentative step toward agreement

WILLMAR – The Willmar School Board and the school district’s teachers may have found a path to a tentative agreement on long-running contract negotiations.

The board and Education Minnesota-Willmar have been negotiating since April 2015. The previous two-year contract expired June 30, 2015, and the teachers have been working under the old contract since then.

The two sides have signed tentative agreements on language issues but have been unable to agree on salaries.

They took a big step Tuesday evening when they tentatively agreed to a bottom line dollar amount for the cost of a new contract. The two groups met on the state of the Willmar Education and Arts Center auditorium to make room for about 60 observers, mostly teachers.

The proposal came about after teacher negotiators used a new way to calculate the cost of their proposal. The two sides had been using costing models that were based on a pre-agreed point in time, so they could be easily compared.

However, the union decided to try calculating the cost of their proposal using current conditions rather than the 2015 numbers agreed on at the beginning of negotiations.

After board negotiators offered to allow all teachers to move up to the next step in the pay scale and an increase of 0.3 percent across the pay scale. The total cost of that proposal would be $1.02 million, said board member Mike Reynolds with a two-year combined raise of 4.025 percent.

The union has been seeking step increases plus 2 percent raises.

After a break to caucus, union negotiators responded that they had determined, using a current staff roster, that the district could provide the raises they sought at a two-year cost of $1,038,582. The certified teaching staff is smaller now than when negotiations started in 2015, said Ken Heitzman, a Senior High teacher.

After another short break, Trevor Helmers, the board’s lead negotiator, said, “If that is the offer, we’ll be settled, ... not a penny more.”

Helmers suggested that small groups of people from both sides would have to work out the details, because the amount was calculated using a method different from the school district’s.

The district couldn’t guarantee that the amount would provide the raises the teachers were seeking – “we haven’t had time to cost it all out,” Helmers said.

Erickson continued to talk about 2 percent raises and step increases, but Helmers said, “the dollar amount is all we can agree to.”

From the beginning, the district has negotiated with the total cost of the contract in mind, Helmers said, and the union can classify the money available however it wants.

Union president Tammy Knapper agreed tentatively to the $1,038,582 amount, with the understanding that small group meetings would continue to work out the details.

They did not call it a tentative agreement, but after the session broke up, Knapper said she would call it a big step.

“We’re confident our numbers are correct,” she said. If the coming meetings bear that out, “then we’ll be done.”

Knapper said Willmar is likely to be the last district in the state without a settled contract.

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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