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'Creative solution' considered for teacher contract settlement

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More than a year after contract expiration, Pequot Lakes teachers and school board members went back to the negotiating table Friday, July 18, again leaving without a resolution.

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There are 14 school districts in Minnesota, including Pequot Lakes, that have not settled their 2013-14 teacher contracts, representing 4 percent of all districts in the state.

Despite the lack of resolution, both the school board and teachers signaled that creativity was a priority to achieve an agreement. The negotiating team for Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes (EMPL) offered a potential solution to a longstanding sticking point in the teacher salary schedule: reducing the number of steps.

The salary schedule at Pequot Lakes contains 25 steps, meaning it takes a teacher 25 years to reach the highest level of pay in a given lane, which refers to educational credits obtained. This schedule setup is one reason why Pequot Lakes teachers are ranked 11th out of 12 surrounding districts in career earnings, according to figures compiled by the union.

The union intends to find out if it would be possible to reduce the steps in the schedule fairly, using the money offered by the district's negotiating team.

The school board's offer has changed only slightly since the April 14 negotiation session, where it offered a 1.5 percent raise on top of steps and lanes the first year of the contract and a 2 percent raise the second year. When steps and lanes are accounted for, this equals a total cost to the district of $207,042 in the first year and $245,133 in the second.

The offer presented July 18 has the same figures, but school board chair Kim Bolz-Andolshek said the district was willing to allow the union to determine for itself how this money could be applied across the salary schedule.

"There's some weird steps and lanes. We know this. There's no easy way to fix it," she said. "We're trying to figure out a solution. That's our priority. We're trying to get creative."

Before pausing the meeting for caucuses, the union asked the board to consider including Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) teachers in the regular teacher salary schedule. Currently, ECFE teachers have a separate schedule that contains five steps. EMPL noted that some of these teachers have been with the district for more than 10 years, and had not seen a raise for awhile.

Part of the school district's offer includes a 50 cent per hour raise for ECFE teachers, negotiated down from a $1 per hour raise first proposed by teachers in July 2013.

The board's negotiating team indicated it was something it was willing to look at in the future.

After nearly an hour of sequestered discussion, the board and teachers came back together to discuss their positions.

"We're going to try to crunch the numbers to condense the salary schedule down to hopefully 15 steps," said high school teacher Dan Moddes, a member of the negotiating team. "We are very interested in correcting problems within our schedule."

Moddes added that this might be a difficult task, given the district's offer.

"We're not sure if the below state average settlement will do the job, but we are going to try," he said.

The state average for 2013-14 contract settlements regarding salaries is 2 percent the first year and 2 percent the second year, not including built-in increases in steps and lanes. EMPL began negotiations last June, asking for a 5.5 percent salary increase in each year of the contract, reflecting the union's feeling that the district has some catching up to do with regards to salaries.

Bolz-Andolshek said she appreciated EMPL's effort to "look at creative solutions."

"There's no easy place where we can address this," she said. "I think it also solves a bigger problem in the contract that we all know is a sticking point."

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Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.
(218) 855-5874
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