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Willmar board, teachers reach tentative agreement on 2015-17 contract

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Selah Van Horne, 4, holds a sign Monday in the parking lot behind Frida's Cafe in downtown Willmar while teachers gather to walk to the Willmar Education and Arts Center for the contract negotiations meeting. A tentative settlement was reached Monday for the the 2015-17 contract, which will expire June 30. Negotiations began in April 2015. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 2 / 9
Signs decorate the theater at the Willmar Education and Arts Center Monday before the negotiations meeting. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 3 / 9
Negotiators for Education Minnesota-Willmar sit Monday with the Willmar School Board in the theater at the Willmar Education and Arts Center for a negotiating session. The meeting was moved to the theater to accommodate the large group in attendance. A tentative settlement was reached Monday in the 2015-17 contract. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 4 / 9
Teachers hold signs Monday in front of the Willmar Education and Arts Center before a contract negotiations meeting. The previous contract expired June 30, 2015, and teachers have been working under that contract since then. A tentative settlement of the 2015-17 contract was finally reached Monday. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 5 / 9
Teacher Marni Vollan walks with other teachers Monday from downtown Willmar to the Willmar Education and Arts Center where a negotiations meeting later produced a tentative 2015-17 contract settlement. The Willmar School Board and Education Minnesota-Willmar have been negotiating since April 2015. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 6 / 9
Teachers march Monday from downtown Willmar to the Willmar Education and Arts Center where a negotiations meeting later produced a tentative 2015-17 contract settlement between Willmar Public Schools teachers and the Willmar School Board. Negotiations began in April 2015. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 7 / 9
Teachers from the Willmar School District sit in the theater at the Willmar Education and Arts Center for the negotiating meeting Monday. The meeting was moved to the theater to accommodate the large number of attendees. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 8 / 9
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Teachers hold signs Monday in front of the Willmar Education and Arts Center before a contract negotations meeting. The previous contract expired June 30, 2015, and teachers have been working under that contract since then. A tentative settlement of the 2015-17 contract was finally reached Monday. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune) 9 / 9

WILLMAR — Willmar Public Schools teachers and the School Board have reached a tentative contract settlement after nearly two years of negotiations.

The final negotiating session took place on the auditorium stage at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, with more than 80 members of the union and the public in attendance. The crowd applauded and cheered when the agreement was reached.

If teachers and board members vote in the coming weeks to approve the agreement, the district will have settled the last of its 2015-17 employment contracts. The contracts expire on June 30. Willmar teachers are the last in the state to settle.

Some other district bargaining units have already signaled their readiness to begin negotiating their 2017-19 contracts.

In the tentative agreement, the district agreed to a salary package with a $1.43 million total cost. That provides teachers an overall 2 percent increase in the first year of the contract and a 1 percent increase in the second. In addition, they will move up to the next experience level on the salary scale.

The board and the union have been negotiating the 2015-17 contract since April 2015. The previous contract expired June 30, 2015, and teachers have been working under that contract since then.

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

After the two-hour meeting to reach a final agreement Monday, union president Tammy Knapper, a teacher at Willmar Senior High School, said it was a huge relief to be finished, "although we get to start again soon."

Knapper said she believed the process was drawn out by having the school district's attorney acting as lead negotiator for the board.

"We believe the district should consult their attorney, just as we consult our attorney, but not at the table," she said. "He doesn't have a stake in Willmar Public Schools" like board members do.

Superintendent Jeff Holm said he was happy to have a settlement. "I hope the teachers vote to approve, and we can turn the page and move forward from here."

Holm said, too, that he wanted to see the board explore different approaches to negotiations, "so we aren't sitting here two years from now going through the exact same things."

Board Chairman Jared Anez said he thought it was good for the district and staff to move beyond the negotiations.

"Our district has so many positive things going on, and it gives us more chance to talk about those things," he said. "The community is behind us in a lot of ways, there's a lot of new investments, and we want that to be our focus."

Holm said the School Board has made good on its wish last fall to be sure all employees received raises following $2.7 million in budget cuts in recent years.

"I think the board was very generous in this offer, and I hope it's viewed that way," he said.

Negotiators from both sides said they were generally satisfied with the settlement, though neither side got everything they wanted.

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
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