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ACGC to miss contract deadline

The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District is the only one in the area that won't meet the Tuesday deadline for settling two-year union contracts with their teachers.

The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District is the only one in the area that won't meet the Tuesday deadline for settling two-year union contracts with their teachers.

That means the district, which is already having financial difficulties, will also be the only one in the area to pay a penalty of $24,000 to $25,000, a one-time assessment of $25 per pupil unit, for missing the deadline imposed by the state.

By last week, more than half of the 341 school districts in the state had reached agreements with their teachers on new two-year contracts.

In some cases, including several area districts, agreements were still awaiting approval from union locals or school boards.

That's the case in Willmar: An agreement was reached in December, and teachers approved it after a Jan. 7 vote. The school board meets Monday to approve it.

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At ACGC, the district and the teachers appear to be deadlocked, and there is no date set for another meeting. The teachers turned down the last contract offer 52 to 7, said chief negotiator Mike McNab on Friday.

Interim Superintendent Keith Redfield said this week that the board had approved its final contract offer and was waiting to see if the teachers would vote again before the deadline.

McNab said Friday that the union's constitution would not allow another vote without another negotiating session. With waiting periods required in the constitution, Jan. 4 was the last day the union could have considered another offer and met the deadline, he said.

Union officials notified school officials of their timeline and offered to meet on Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, McNab said. "We were turned down."

The salary increases included in the district's offer are much smaller than the average across the state, he said.

On average, contracts settled in the state contain salary increases of 2.49 percent in the first year and 2.38 percent in the second year.

In ACGC, the district has offered a 2.95 percent overall increase in the first year and 2.08 percent in the second year of the contract. Those increases would be used to cover raises and increases in benefits like health care.

Health care is a major issue in many contracts, because the cost of health insurance continues to climb. Tight budgets are another handicap in rural areas, where state aid declines along with enrollment.

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A number of districts started negotiating early and completed their contracts early, said Tammy Barnes, an Education Minnesota staffer based in Willmar. Lac qui Parle Valley and Redwood Valley settled last fall. Renville County West and MACCRAY settled in December.

Minnewaska Area completed its contract this week. The district is in statutory operating debt, which means the deficit in its general fund exceeds state limits.

To begin negotiations, the School Board and the union did a joint study of the district's budget and the plan to get out of debt by the end of the school year, said Minnewaska Area Superintendent Greg Ohl. The district's final settlement of 5.5 percent over two years was below the state average, he said, but it fit within the plan.

Ohl credited "a great mutual interest in the student" for helping reach the agreement in time.

The deadline "is a reality that everybody lives with," Ohl said.

Some districts have good relationships and are able to settle quickly. Dawson-Boyd, for example, settled in one night, Barnes said. Some others negotiated through the summer in order to settle with time to spare.

Getting started early can be a key to meeting the deadline, said Mary Minnehan, another Education Minnesota staffer in Willmar.

"It's not so much the deadline but the lack of funding" that can slow negotiations, she said.

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The state set the Jan. 15 deadline some years ago, said John Sylvester, deputy executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. The majority of districts meet it.

The association doesn't favor the deadline, because it can encourage a rush to settle a contract to avoid paying the penalty, Sylvester said.

"We tell districts to look at the penalty next to the settlement," he said, because the long-term financial impact of a "bad" contract could be greater than the amount of the penalty.

Doug Dooher, a spokesman for Education Minnesota, said the union's study of settlements shows that contracts settled just before the state deadline are not necessarily better for the union.

"Our numbers just don't show that," he said, adding that the deadline "doesn't make a bunch of money appear."

The deadline is probably a good thing from the union's point of view, Dooher said.

"It does put pressure on, but it puts pressure on both sides," he said. Without the deadline, negotiations can drag on for a year or more, he said. "We don't believe that's good for any of the parties involved."

The state has had few teacher strikes since the deadline was put in place about 20 years ago, Dooher said. "We think that's a sign that the bargaining process is working."

The penalty is not popular with districts or the union.

"We believe the penalty is onerous," Sylvester said. "The worst impact of the fine is on kids, because the money's not available for them."

The penalty also leaves less money available for employees to bargain for, Dooher said.

In an e-mail, Lac qui Parle Valley Superintendent Ray Farwell said, "Public schools do not have enough resources now, so taking dollars away for not completing one piece of district business seems selective and political."

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