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Willmar teachers approve contract settlement

Briana Sanchez / Tribune Negotiators sit with the Willmar School Board in the theater at the WEAC for the March 6 school board meeting. A tentative agreement was reached that night, and this week the teachers voted in favor of approving that contract. It now goes to the Willmar School Board next week.

WILLMAR — Willmar's teachers have voted to approve a tentative contract settlement with Willmar Public Schools.

Members of Education Minnesota-Willmar voted 273 in favor to 41 opposed to approve a tentative agreement on Wednesday, union president Tammy Knapper said in a telephone interview Thursday. The agreement was reached in a March 6 negotiating session.

Nearly all of the district's teachers, 95 percent, participated in the election. "I think overall, the teachers are satisfied with the contract they were able to negotiate," Knapper said.

The next step in the process will be approval by the Willmar School Board. The next board meeting is scheduled for Monday.

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

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

The two sides had signed off on language issues some time ago but were unable to agree on salaries.

The dispute over salaries was exacerbated by strong views on each side. Teachers wanted to secure raises that were comparable to other districts in the state. The School Board was concerned about maintaining its fund balance, in anticipation of opening a new elementary school later this year.

In addition, the district's decision to have its attorney act as lead negotiator was opposed by the union.

Willmar is the last district in the state to settle its 2015-17 teacher contract. The contract will expire June 30. Other bargaining units in the district settled their contracts more than a year ago and have notified the district that they are ready to begin negotiating 2017-19 contracts.

Once both sides have signed the contract, the district will determine back pay for the teachers. Knapper said she hoped that would be done by summer.

The union needs to file its formal notice of intent to negotiate 60 days before a contract expires, she said, so that paperwork will be filed before May 1.

The bulk of the 2017-19 negotiations is likely to take place later in the year, once the Legislature has completed its work and adopted a new two-year state budget, she said.

Knapper said the union and the school district are looking for a better way to handle the next contract negotiation.

"We're looking forward to a process that won't involve the attorney sitting at the table," she said. Both groups have talked about seeking state help in implementing a less adversarial process, called interest-based bargaining.

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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