Brekken attends session, but doesn’t sit at the negotiations table

    At a negotiations session Wednesday evening between the Crookston School Board's Negotiations Committee and the Crookston Education Association's negotiations team, one primary sticking point on contract negotiations for a two-year deal, retroactive to July 1 for 2013-14, and 2014-15 appears to be whether or not there will be a cap on the teachers’ health insurance package.   

    The board's latest offer, Superintendent Chris Bates said, is contingent on a cap being put in place. CHS science teacher Brian Follette, serving as lead negotiator at Wednesday's session in the CHS Family and Consumer Sciences classroom, indicated that the CEA does not want a cap.   

    On other major components of the contract, Bates indicated that there are no issues that are insurmountable or would be considered "deal-breakers."   

    The contract, as things stand now, contains no salary increase in 2013-14 and a 2 percent salary increase in 2014-15. But, as in contracts from recent years in which the teachers received no official salary bump, many teachers can still earn more money as they attain seniority and, therefore, climb to higher "steps" on the salary ladder.   

    But, Bates said, there are as many as 45 teachers on staff who have reached the top step. Some, he said, reached it several years ago. "For a number of years those people stuck at the top have truly gotten zeroes when there's been a contract with zero salary increase," the superintendent explained to the Times. "Clearly, you can't have people just sitting there getting nothing year after year after year."   

    So, given that, the board offered a $1,000 onetime payment during the first year of the contract to the teachers who are perched on the highest step. The CEA on Wednesday countered with a $1,400 payment. Bates said the $400 difference would amount to approximately $18,000 when all of the eligible teachers are taken into account. "That's not a deal-breaker," he said. "In the big scheme I think we can find $18,000 somewhere else."   

    As for the insurance cap, Bates said it's not exactly an irresistible force versus an immovable object, but he added that there's no easy compromise on the issue between having one and not having one. But, during the session, he did suggest to the CEA that a cap wouldn't necessarily have to be permanent and that a cap could at some point in the future be raised. "That would be a starting point just like salary, that the cap has the potential to be adjusted," the superintendent said.   

    Having a cap gives the school district "predictability" when formulating budgets while at the same time trying to account for a health insurance industry that is known for its unpredictability and even "volatility" when it comes to rates from year to year, Bates continued. If a one-year increase is extreme enough, he said, "A district that is in good financial standing can be put in a bad financial standing overnight."   

    Still, Bates said the board doesn't want to "stick the teachers with massive increases, either." But the status quo, with no cap, is not something the board wants to see, he stressed, reiterating that the current offer is contingent on a cap being put in place.   

    Follette, noting how the CEA agreed to contracts with no salary increases when the district was especially tight financially and the state was holding back education funding, asked the board to keep that in mind as it considers the insurance cap issue. "We don't want the board bearing the entire brunt of this, but we don't want to bear it all, either," Follette said.   

    Both sides agreed that bringing in a mediator is not necessary, at least not at this juncture of the negotiations. The next session is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 8 at 5 p.m. at CHS.   

    "I'm encouraged that almost everything is close, we just have to figure out now how we come to terms with healthcare that everyone can live with, so then we can move on," Bates said.   

    Once an agreement is reached among the negotiators, it will have to go to the full school board for approval, as well as the full CEA for ratification.

Brekken's role   

    The board's Negotiations Committee on Wednesday was made up of only two members, Tim Dufault and Keith Bakken. The third member, Robin Brekken, sat on a counter in the classroom a few feet from the negotiations table, along with board member Frank Fee, who was observing.    

    Brekken led the committee until recently being told by the CEA that, because of a state statute that was amended in 2005, he cannot be involved in negotiations because his wife, Karen Brekken, is employed by the district as a part-time ECFE teacher.   

    As of now, the four ECFE teachers on staff are not members of the CEA, but CEA President Kim Davidson has said previously that the 2005 amendment requires ECFE staff members to at least pay a "fair share" membership due to the bargaining unit, even if they aren't full members of the bargaining unit.    

    At Wednesday's session, Bates stated that the "ECFE proposal is still in process" and some initial meetings have been held and "initial ideas" have been discussed. "We'll need to sit down again before anything is brought forward," he said.   

    Meanwhile, Brekken continues to disseminate documentation comparing teacher compensation in Crookston to dozens of other districts in northwest Minnesota. This week, he’s also submitted for publication several documents comparing state test results in  math, reading and science. You can find those test results, along with a letter to the editor from Brekken, at