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Willmar schools, teachers negotiate again

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board and its teachers will make another attempt to negotiate a contract settlement Friday afternoon.The last contract for Education Minnesota-Willmar expired July 30, 2015. Contracts for other bargaining units in th...

WILLMAR - The Willmar School Board and its teachers will make another attempt to negotiate a contract settlement Friday afternoon.
The last contract for Education Minnesota-Willmar expired July 30, 2015. Contracts for other bargaining units in the district were settled in late 2015 or early 2016. The contract being negotiated would cover July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2017.
The two sides have met a dozen times and participated in two mediation session without finding a resolution. They will meet again at 3:45 p.m. Friday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.
Monday afternoon, more than 30 teachers in blue union shirts packed the Willmar School Board meeting. High school teacher and union negotiator Ken Heitzman addressed the board during a public comment period.
Heitzman said the district’s difficulties in reaching a settlement with teachers “contributes to difficulties recruiting and retaining quality teachers.”
Both sides have worked hard to reach a fair settlement, he said, but union members feel that the negotiations process has been a barrier to reaching a settlement.
“It is my goal to hopefully convince you that the current process is not working and changes in the process need to be made,” he said. He asked board members to move to change the process and replace it with one that is less adversarial.
In recent interviews, union negotiators have said they disagree with the district’s decision to hire an attorney, Trevor Helmers, to be the lead negotiator.
Union negotiators in April said they would prefer to negotiate as they had in the past, with board members present.
After the School Board meeting, Chairwoman Liz VanDerBill and longtime board member Mike Reynolds said they are not having second thoughts about using Helmers as a negotiator. Negotiations had not gone smoothly in the past two contracts, the first two times the district and teachers had gone to mediation, and personalities had been getting in the way, they said.
Reynolds, who has been involved in a number of contract negotiations during his time on the board, said the idea came from the New London-Spicer School District.
“I talked to (board member) Robert Moller and (Superintendent) Paul Carlson over there, and they said that process worked,” Reynolds said. “They told us how they work; they told us they got it done in three or four sessions. We decided to try something different.”
“I think we’re all eager to come together and settle,” VanDerBill said.
Other employee bargaining units settled their contracts some time ago, most after a few meetings. In most cases, the contracts were settled for an increase of about 2 percent in each year of two-year contracts. In some cases, employees received most of their increases in benefits rather than in salaries.
In two bargaining units, pay equity increases led to larger settlements, as two groups of paraprofessionals received settlements to increase their base pay to be more in line with other paras. In the second year of those contracts, the settlements were also about 2 percent.
In April, union negotiators said there are some language items that still need to be resolved in the contract, but both they and Human Resources Director Liz Fischer agreed that salary is the major issue.
The teachers are currently proposing a 3 percent increase in the first year and 2 percent in the second year.
The school district wants to limit the increased cost of the entire contract to 2 percent each year. The cost of a contract includes salary along with any changes in benefits that are made.
The school district offered to grant step increases to all teachers and a 0.25 percent salary increase. A step increase moves a teacher into a higher-paying row on the salary schedule, based on experience. The salary scale looks like a grid.
In the past, step increases were automatic, with pay raises negotiated on top of that, according to the union. In recent contracts they have been negotiated.
The district has always granted raises based on increased education. Teachers who obtain additional education can move into a higher-paying column, called a lane, on the salary schedule.
Granting increases for steps and lanes will be a 1.9 percent overall increase in teacher salaries, Fischer said. With a goal of keeping the overall increase close to 2 percent a year, the district doesn’t have room to offer much more, she added.
Willmar’s salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $37,663, and the top salary in that lane is $53,116 on step 11. A first-year teacher with a master’s degree would earn $40,715 and top out at $64,188 on step 15.
The highest lane is for teachers with a master’s degree plus 40 semester credits. The lowest step salary is $43,952. The step 15 salary is $69,264.
Comparing salary schedules between school districts is difficult, because there are so many variables.
Some districts have teachers working longer or shorter days, the school years are different lengths and benefits vary. Some bargaining units choose to negotiate for higher contributions toward health premiums rather than salary. Some districts have 20 steps, but Willmar has 15.

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In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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