It's part of the reason they want to stay and become entrenched in their community.

I feel compelled to write this letter in regard to the current teacher negotiations taking place in the Crookston school district. Negotiations are often difficult as two parties try to find common ground on issues each side deem as important. As this round of negotiations began, it was evident that the benefit package, particularly the health insurance benefit, would be one of contention.

As the administration and board members feel this benefit is being offered in excess, the teachers believe this is a benefit of great importance. In negotiations past, the teachers' union has felt so strongly about the importance of keeping the health insurance benefit intact, that we have given up salary increases in lieu of this benefit.

We have compromised with the board by absorbing a larger percent of the premium cost of the insurance, going from an 80/20 share from when I first entered the district to a 75/25 share, to the current share on a family plan of 70/30. In addition to this concession, many, yes, many of us have voluntarily switched to the more affordable HSA plan, in order to relieve the district of financial burden. Even though these concessions have been made, as a teacher in this district, I currently feel the board is viewing us as uncompromising and possibly greedy.

Reviewing the statistics that have been published showing that Crookston has the second highest benefit package of neighboring districts is not that alarming when Crookston, at the number two spot shows a total benefit package of $19,610, while the number three and four spot show $18,332 and $17,272 respectively. This does not appear to be as shocking as it is played up in the public.

I understand that when comparing the top 10 school districts in our area with the highest FTEs, Crookston's benefit package averages approximately $2,300 more, mainly due to the cost of insurance. This should be looked at as a positive thing. Yes, we do have a good insurance benefit. It is a valuable benefit that we appreciate. I don't view this as negative at all. It is actually a benefit that draws and retains teachers in our district. A teacher is likely to stay in a school district that has good benefits. A teacher working in a district receiving a substandard benefit package is likely to apply to another district in hopes of bettering him or herself for the future.

Perhaps having a good insurance benefit could be viewed as an asset to the district. Perhaps it should be viewed as a way to attract and retain good teachers. I believe this is the case in Crookston, as a high percentage of our district staff has no more steps to take on the salary schedule. We are at the highest step possible because we have stayed in the Crookston school district. By staying, we have entrenched ourselves in the community, raised our families here, and dedicated ourselves to serving the students in our district.

I could list the many ways teachers in this district go above and beyond the contract language in hours spent in school, teaching loads, multiple preps, AP classes, remedial classes, advisors and coaches, updating knowledge and skills without professional development dollars, and more, but I don't believe the school board members are disputing our dedication to the students of Crookston Public Schools. I do feel, however, they think we are not deserving of our current health insurance benefit.

It should also be noted that as part of the benefit package, 15 sick days are allowed annually. Because of the longevity of teachers in this district, teachers who have accumulated the maximum number of sick days (183 days) and fail to use the allotted 15 sick days each year, end up losing the dollar amount for unused sick days and these monies are defaulted back to district funds. I imagine this amounts to hundreds of sick days and thousands of dollars a year for which the district does not pay, ultimately reducing the value of the benefit package offered. This alone has the potential to move Crookston's #2 ranked total benefit package to a lower spot on the comparison list.

In recent years, being at the top of the steps has been a difficult place to be, as we teachers have received no monetary increase in pay. But again, it was a concession we made to keep our health insurance benefit. By agreeing to several years of 0 percent increase in pay, with increases in taxes, and absorbing some of the increase in health insurance premiums, my take home pay this year is less than any year since 2008. Please, as a teacher in this district, don't make me feel like I don't compromise.

I think that when the school board made it's opening offer of 0 percent, 2 percent and a one-time payment of $1,000 for teachers at the top of the salary schedule, contingent upon capping health insurance, it was evident the school board didn't want to negotiate unless the concession was made by teachers to give up the one benefit they have sacrificed to protect.

I ask that prior to mediation, the school board members, as members of the Crookston community and as parents of current and past Crookston students, reflect on the compromises and sacrifices being made by teachers in this district. I'd like them to strongly consider maintaining the current benefit package, including health insurance as a way to attract, retain, and show consideration to teachers in this district. I hope the two parties can agree to draft an acceptable and admirable contract.

Grove is a teacher at Crookston High School.