He also says he's being wrongfully forced from the negotiations table.

Since being hired as superintendent of the Crookston School District, Chris Bates has established a list of approximately 20 school districts in Minnesota that are similar in size to Crookston for the basis of collecting research data in a variety of areas, such as activity/athletic offerings, curriculum, and salaries, just to name a few.

At the conclusion of Monday's Crookston School Board meeting, board member Robin Brekken utilized the list of districts to publicize his contention that the local school district's spending on employee insurance is considerably higher than it should be. The average per-employee cost among the 20 districts is $6,331, the document Brekken released to the local media hours before Monday's meeting shows, while the cost in Crookston is $11,442. That's $5,111 above the average, he said. The only two districts on the list with insurance costs that approach Crookston are Sibley East, at $10,403, and Cannon Falls, at $10,628.

"I guess I don't think that's OK," said Brekken, who has on multiple occasions since becoming a board member voiced his concerns about the district's insurance expenses, but until Monday never had a document to accompany his comments.

"I think it's unfair to our taxpayers," he added. "Taxpayers will be in shock when they see this document. I will enthusiastically defend the taxpayers, and it is my fiduciary responsibility as a school board member to bring this type of information forward. I expect the taxpayers will wonder what in the hell we have been doing as a school board."

Brekken, who chairs the board's Negotiations Committee that is currently negotiating a new contract with the Crookston Education Association, said he will soon be releasing more documents that show the teachers in the school district are being treated fairly. If he felt they weren't being treated as such, Brekken said he would defend their position "just as passionately" as he's defending district taxpayers.

CEA President Kim Davidson, in attendance at Monday's meeting, asked to publicly respond to Brekken's comments before Board Chair Frank Fee adjourned the meeting, but he said he had already passed the point on the agenda where visitors are allowed to address the board.

Asked for comment later by the Times, Davidson said it's been a typical practice during contract talks over the years to not negotiate in public, and she was going to continue to abide by that practice. But, she added, the teachers are public employees and, therefore, the public has access to their salaries and benefits packages. "We're not hiding our insurance benefits or anything else," Davidson said. "The public can see all of this."

Board member Keith Bakken, who's also voiced concerns about insurance costs on several occasions in the past, said it's a district-wide problem that's not confined to a single bargaining unit. Referring to the $6.060 million district voters earlier this month authorized the board to spend on facility improvement projects, Bakken contended that "what we overspend in the district (on insurance costs) would have totally paid for that levy if we were more in line with other districts."

Removed from negotiations

Brekken reserved his strongest comments for what he said is a concerted effort by the CEA leadership to remove him from the negotiations process. At a previous Negotiations Committee session with the CEA, he said he was told to leave the table, and then told to leave the room.

Brekken's wife, Karen, is an ECFE teacher in the district. The ECFE staff are not in the union, but he said his wife was sent an email by Davidson saying in effect that they had to be members of the collective bargaining unit. Brekken said while he's aware of the perception of a conflict of interest since he's involved in negotiations and his spouse is a teacher, he said his wife and the rest of the ECFE teaching staff do not want to be members of the CEA. He cited a 1996 "memorandum of understanding" between the CEA and ECFE staff.

"Using my wife as a pawn to remove me from the negotiations table is just about intolerable," Brekken said.

Asked about Brekken's comments regarding attempts to remove him from negotiations, Davidson limited her comments, but did refer to Chapter 179A the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA), which, she said, was amended in 2005 to include ECFE teachers. Essentially, it requires that public employees pay a "fair share" due to a collective bargaining unit if one exists, but doesn't mean they have to be official members of that unit. Davidson told the Times that she was notified in October by Education Minnesota that the CEA was not in compliance with PELRA.

"We have not told (the ECFE staff) that they have to join the union, but the statute clearly states they have to pay the fair share," she said. "They are not required to be members, but they are required to pay."

A Negotiations Committee session was scheduled for later Monday evening, and Brekken said he planned on attending. "I will be in the room; I may not be at the table, but I will be in the room," he said, adding that the sessions are open to the public. "Anyone can come," he said. He said he's looking into what his legal rights are in the matter.

Other topics

• Brekken also said discipline is an issue in the local schools. "When the superintendent is told to f-off, that's right, f-off...no one in any position should have to put up with that," Brekken said.

• Citing the recent district audit, Brekken noted that the district's finances are in better shape. But he added that the district's unreserved fund balance was depleted significantly during previous leaner years in order to minimize staff and program cuts and keep elementary class sizes as small as possible. The board, therefore, needs to be especially mindful of continuing to replenish the fund balance, Brekken said. "Some of these dollars need to go toward getting the balance back up," he said.