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Willmar teachers, district make some progress toward settlement

WILLMAR — Willmar Public Schools' teachers and the School Board continue to find a contract settlement elusive.

After meeting for several hours Wednesday, the board and Education Minnesota-Willmar found they were able to come closer than in the past but were still too far apart to reach a settlement.

The two sides had tentatively agreed on a dollar amount at a meeting in December, with the condition from the union that it be enough to provide the 2 percent raises teachers were seeking. They planned to work out the details in meetings with a few people from each side.

However, the group was unable to make the numbers work over the course of two meetings.

The next step will be at the next board meeting Feb. 15, when the board will have a closed negotiations strategy discussion. The two sides decided to schedule another session with a state mediator in the hope that it could help in reaching a final settlement. A mediator met twice with negotiators earlier in the process.

Liz Fischer, the district's human resources director, said she believed the smaller group had reached a better understanding of each other's positions through the meetings and had made some progress.

Union president Tammy Knapper, a special education teacher, said she felt the discussions had been productive, too.

The board and union started negotiating the two-year contract in April 2015. The previous contract expired June 30, 2015, and the teachers have been working under that contract since then. The contract they are currently negotiating would expire on June 30.

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

In December, the sides agreed to a bottom line settlement of $1.038 million over two years. The district offered it, and union negotiators estimated that the amount would be enough to give teachers raises based on their time of service and a 2 percent raise in each year of the contract.

However, after calculating individual back pay and salary increases for each employee, the two-year cost was about $1.6 million, Fischer said.

Knapper said the teachers did not necessarily agree with the numbers produced by the district's costing formula but agreed to use it in the interest of reaching a settlement.

"We weren't getting anywhere discussing different costing models," she said. "It was a way to continue the conversation."

Knapper said the teachers agreed to reduce their proposal to a 2 percent raise in the first year and a 1 percent raise in the second year, which brought the cost down to $1.4 million.

The union has asked the district to meet them halfway, she said, but the district's negotiators said they weren't authorized to make that decision without consulting the rest of the board.

It was a big step for the union to reduce its salary proposal, Knapper said.

"Education Minnesota-Willmar feels like this is a fiscally responsible settlement," she said. "It's not our intention to put the district in (statutory operating debt); we've been there, and we don't want to do that."

Fischer said many ideas about "coming down and coming up" were discussed at the meeting, though some weren't necessarily formal offers.

"I definitely feel like we're closer; we're just not quite there," Fischer said.

Knapper said she hopes the board feels that a settlement would be "investing in the staff as an asset to the community versus a liability we can't afford; that's how we feel."

Both agreed they would like to get a settlement finished.

Fischer said she would like to get the teacher contract settled and take care of the back pay issue, as contracts for the teachers and the district's bargaining units will be expiring this year. She recently received a notice from one of the other units that its members are ready to negotiate the next 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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