Willmar teachers, school board stuck in contract negotiations

WILLMAR -- The teachers in Willmar Public Schools recently started their second school year without a current contract. If Monday evening's sometimes contentious negotiating session is an indication, Education Minnesota Willmar and the school dis...

WILLMAR - The teachers in Willmar Public Schools recently started their second school year without a current contract.
If Monday evening’s sometimes contentious negotiating session is an indication, Education Minnesota Willmar and the school district are facing a number of roadblocks to settling the contract which would cover July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2015.
During a session lasting about three hours, the two sides started with a lengthy discussion of rewriting the contract’s seniority language. Other issues involved rules for part-time teachers and several memorandums of understanding one side or the other wanted signed.
Financial matters such as pay and benefits were not part of Monday’s session. A tentative agreement was reached on that some time ago, but teachers won’t receive pay raises until the contract is settled and ratified. Other bargaining units settled months ago. The teachers and board have met more than 20 times.

At the end of the meeting, none of the memorandums had been signed, and negotiators had not reach any agreements. The two sides said they would meet again when they could have their lawyers present to work on seniority language.
On the seniority issue, a sticking point for both sides was the issue of “bumping” after layoffs. A person licensed in two disciplines could be laid off in one area and bump a less senior teacher in the other area of licensing. Board negotiators said they wanted the person to have experience teaching in the new area; teacher negotiators said a teacher’s skills would be effective in all of the areas in which he or she is licensed.
There was extensive discussion of hypothetical situations. Board members said they wanted to develop language that would help avoid future union grievances.
Liz Fischer, the district’s human resources director, asked the teachers to sign two memorandums of understanding. The memos would signify agreements on expanding the pre-K school readiness program and on handling Professional Learning Communities for teachers.
Fischer said a tentative agreement on the school readiness program had been reached earlier in negotiations, and the changes had gone into effect this month with the new school year. The PLC memo would continue a previous agreement.
The district could face two grievances on the issues, because they do not follow the expired contract under which teachers are still working.
Fischer also presented a memo changing the way the union president is compensated for taking some time off to handle union business.
The district currently pays union president Tammy Knapper her regular salary, and the union reimburses the district for her union time. Knapper is the second union president to work under the arrangement.
The law requires districts to allow release time for union presidents, and that will continue, Fischer said. However, the district wants to stop the pay arrangement, leaving the union to compensate the president separately for union time.
The arrangement has not worked out as anticipated, Fischer said.
Fischer said the district would approve continuing the pay arrangement if the teachers signed the memos governing pre-school staffing and PLCs.
Knapper said she could not sign the memo about school readiness, as it was still a negotiating issue. She also handed Fischer a grievance document about it.
Fischer agreed that “we implemented a massive change” but said it was one agreed on months ago.
Union negotiators said the union president issue was a surprise to them. Fischer acknowledged it had not been an issue in negotiations, but it has been discussed with union representatives before.
When they were asked to sign the memos as a gesture of “good faith,” union negotiator Cindy Kroona said, “We want good faith, but we’re nervous about everything being pulled back.”
Willmar School Board negotiators Mike Carlson and Mike Reynolds said they had not pulled anything back. However, negotiator Nathan Streed, who was not at the meeting Monday, told the board in June that previous agreements had been pulled off the table at the end of a long mediation session.
Carlson said the previous agreements were put back on the table when the groups resumed meeting in August.
The groups moved closer to an agreement on part-time teachers in August, but did not make any movement Monday.
The meeting ended with negotiators saying they were dissatisfied with the process, which had become adversarial. In the past, contract negotiations have used a collaborative bargaining process.
Several people said they were upset with the “nastiness” in the room. A few people had tears in their eyes at the end of the meeting after Fischer asked if rumors of a work-to-rule action were true.
In work-to-rule, union members strictly adhere to the work rules in their contracts. “That is not a conversation we have had,” Kroona said. “We are professional, and we are here for children.”
Reynolds said he would like to see the group make a commitment to collaborative bargaining. “We got a lot more done” with that method, he said. About Monday’s session, he said, “The more we talk, the more we get apart.

Long negotiations not unusual, can be unsettling

WILLMAR - Education Minnesota officials in St. Paul said Tuesday that seven school districts in Minnesota out of 332 districts still have unsettled 2013-15 teacher contracts.
Willmar is one of them, and did not reach agreement in a negotiating session Monday evening.
Bob Lowe, director of management services for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said it’s not necessarily unusual to have some districts unsettled at this point. The state no longer sets a deadline for finishing negotiations, he said, and it may take longer if complex issues are involved.

The association advises school districts if they have questions about negotiations but does not usually get involved otherwise, he said. The association offers training and advice for board members and administrators in winter workshops.
“There’s never one side or the other that can be considered holding this process up,” Lowe said. “It’s a negotiation, and with both sides there’s a give and take.”
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said a long negotiations process can be unsettling.
“It can leave a cloud of uncertainty over a school district,” she said. “There can be a lot of unanswered question” about programs, budgets and class sizes.
“I would also say for both educators and administration, an unsettled contract can be quite a distraction,” she said. Teachers do much of their work in the evenings, when bargaining sessions and meetings take place.
“Rather than being home calling parents and grading papers, they are sitting in meetings trying to bargain a contract,” she said. “It’s beyond time to settle; I can’t believe it’s taken this long.”

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: or phone 320-214-4340
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