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Pequot Lakes teachers' union holds rally

Education Minnesota president Denise Specht told the crowd of Pequot Lakes teachers and supporters, “I really wish we were here celebrating a new contract.” The district is one of 30 in the state yet to settle a contract with teachers out of more than 330. Photo by Chelsey Perkins1 / 2
Pequot Lakes kindergarten teacher Jackie Duoos gets fired up at the EMPL unity rally held Tuesday, June 3. Photo by Chelsey Perkins2 / 2

Around 90 Pequot Lakes teachers and 50 supporters rallied Tuesday, June 3, to show support for reaching a fair settlement on contracts with the school district.

The rally at Breezy Point Resort featured speeches from local politicians and Education Minnesota's president, Denise Specht. Numerous union representatives from other area schools also attended.

Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes (EMPL) President Kim Johnson told the crowd, "We think our above average teachers deserve a settlement that's above average."

"We have one goal: a fair contract," she added.

It's been nearly a year since the previous teachers' contract expired, and as of June 3, the number of school districts with unsettled contracts had dwindled to 30 out of more than 330 statewide.

"I really wish we were here celebrating a new contract," Specht said. "Teachers are not going to come here and are not going to stay here without a competitive contract."

Specht shared statistics about Pequot Lakes teachers and unique features of the district.

According to the fact sheet provided at the rally, Pequot Lakes is one of the few districts in the state in which a student can earn an associate's degree without leaving high school. EMPL estimates this amounts to more than $435,000 per year in tuition savings for area families. It also discourages students from completing post-secondary at Central Lakes College, which equates to increased revenue for the district when those students stay at the high school to complete their degrees.

This, Specht said, is one of the reasons Pequot Lakes teachers deserve a fair, competitive contract.

The crowd also heard from District 8 Congressman Rick Nolan, DFL-Minn., who said his grandchildren represent the fifth generation of his family who've attended Pequot Lakes schools. Nolan, who once taught high school social studies in Royalton, described Pequot Lakes as "one of the best educational systems in the country."

"Our children excel," he said. "The only thing we don't excel in is paying the teachers a salary that's commensurate."

State Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, also spoke. Ward, who worked as a teacher for 34 years, said he could empathize with EMPL, having walked in two teachers' strikes himself in Proctor.

"It's the most important job there is of any," he said. "Because of you we have educated, productive, positive, courteous, engaged, thoughtful, caring, giving, dedicated citizens in our community."

Specht said the state average for teacher contract settlements is a 2 percent increase in the first year and another 2 percent increase in the second year. These increases do not account for the "steps and lanes," or normal increases built into the salary schedule based upon a teacher's experience and education.

These agreed raises, Specht said, "include many districts with less impressive results than you."

In her presentation at the May 19 school board meeting, board chair Kim Bolz-Andolshek compared four consistent cells - Bachelor's degree minimum year, Bachelor's degree maximum year, Master's degree minimum year and Master's degree maximum year - of 12 area school district's salary schedules.

According to Bolz-Andolshek's chart, Pequot Lakes is above average in both maximum year categories, sitting at $51,274 in the Bachelor's degree lane and $59,575 in the Master's degree lane. The average of the 12 districts for each of these categories are $47,822 and $57,047, respectively.

The district is also above average in the Master's degree minimum lane, at $39,444 compared to the average of $38,545. The only cell in which Pequot Lakes falls below average is in the Bachelor's minimum category, but just barely. Pequot Lakes' pay is $33,948 compared to the average of $34,069, a difference of less than $100.

These numbers present a more accurate comparison picture than an overall salary average of each district, said Superintendent Chris Lindholm. EMPL, however, said there's another set of numbers that should be considered: a teacher's career earnings.

According to figures compiled by Education Minnesota, a Pequot Lakes teacher's cumulative salary over 20 years of teaching stands at $904,613, placing it 11th out of the same 12 districts Bolz-Andolshek analyzed. This is based upon a simulated career path through current salary schedules: three years in each lane from Bachelor's degree through Master's degree, with the remainder in the Master's degree +15 lane (which means a teacher has earned 15 credits beyond the degree).

The top district in this simulation is Northland Community schools, where a teacher would earn $988,258 over 20 years. A Pine River-Backus (PR-B) teacher would earn $947,688 over the same time period, fifth on the list. The only district that fell below Pequot Lakes in the analysis was Pierz by about $600.

When the simulation is stretched over 30 years, including all lanes through Master's degree +60 credits, Pequot Lakes does move up the list, but still remains ninth out of the 12 districts, with earnings of $1,541,010. PR-B falls one spot to sixth in the 30-year analysis; teachers there would earn $1,572,502, or $31,492 more than a Pequot Lakes teacher. Northland again tops the list, while Walker-Hackensack-Akeley and Staples-Motley both fall below Pequot Lakes.

The reason career earnings vary in this way and look much different than comparing cells is due to the number of steps in each schedule. Pequot Lakes has 26 steps, meaning it takes 26 years for a teacher to reach the maximum level in a given lane, while most other districts analyzed have fewer, typically around 15.

The most comparable district, Crosby-Ironton, has 25 steps. Although there is parity between the minimum and maximum of each degree level, a Crosby-Ironton teacher earns more than a Pequot Lakes teacher in both analyses, by $38,920 in 20 years and $50,207 in 30.

In an interview in early May, Lindholm said the career earnings is one area "where the union has a point."

It would be prohibitively expensive for the district to eliminate several steps in the salary schedule all at once, however.

Members of the negotiating team for the EMPL acknowledge the difficulty of addressing the steps issue, and said they are not willing to "sink the district" over trying to remedy the problem.

Instead, the team said, they're seeking an increase in salary "a little above" the average settlement rate to work toward closing the gap in career earnings.

The most important variable, Lindholm said, is "being fiscally responsible."

"We owe it to the community and the teachers," he said. "We don't want to be in a situation where we may end up laying teachers off in three years."

Another session between the board and teachers has not yet been scheduled. The school board will again close its meeting June 16 to strategize for contract negotiations.

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.

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