Session scheduled one day after both sides report a tentative agreement is in place

    One day after representatives of both the school board/administration and Crookston Education Association reported that a tentative agreement had been reached on a two-year contract with the teachers' bargaining unit, that apparently is no longer the case.    

    Another negotiations session between the board's Negotiations Committee and the CEA's negotiating team has been scheduled for 7 a.m. on Monday, June 9 in the school district office conference room at the high school. That comes after two similar sessions this week, at New Paths Area Learning Center, with it being reported on Wednesday that this week's second session, held Tuesday evening, had produced the tentative deal with the teachers for contract years 2013-14 and 2014-15.   

    Asked by the Times Thursday morning for the rationale behind the scheduling of the June 9 negotiations session, CEA lead negotiator Brian Follette, a science teacher at CHS, said he was unaware the June 9 session had been scheduled. He was gathering more information as of press time Thursday.   

    When Follette discussed the parameters of the purported contract agreement with the Times on Wednesday, he said the goal was to have a ratification vote involving the full CEA on Monday. That's also the day the school board is next scheduled to meet.   

    The contract parameters, Follette told the Times Wednesday, include a zero percent salary schedule increase in the first year, and a 2.5 percent increase in the second year. The new contract also includes a $1,000 one-time stipend in the first year that will be paid to approximately 45 teachers on staff who at various points previously reached the final "step" on the seniority ladder and, therefore, have not been eligible to receive any additional pay bumps as they achieve additional seniority status.   

    As for health insurance, which has been a primary point of contention in negotiations between the two sides and with a mediator over the past several months, Follette said the high-premium, low-deductible package known as the "first-dollar plan" will no longer be offered to new hires as of July 1, 2014 and will sunset at that point. In other words, it will basically no longer be an option for any new hires or anyone else to switch to, Follette explained, but teachers that are currently on the first-dollar plan, whether it's the individual plan or the family plan, will be able to stay on it. He said around half of the teaching staff is on some form of the first-dollar plan. As part of the new contract, he said teachers on the first-dollar plan will pay 5 percent more for it. The other half of the teaching staff is on either the individual or family version of the Health Savings Account (HSA) plan, which most school districts are now going with in favor of the first-dollar plan.   

    "I think it's a deal that both sides can work with for the future and be OK with," Follette said Wednesday. "We have a deal that's agreeable, but not everybody will ever be happy. We'll have members that will not be happy. That's the challenges we face when you represent that many people."

Not done yet   

    So what happened between Wednesday's talk of an agreement – which included, in addition to Follette's comments, Superintendent Chris Bates notifying the Times via email that he believed a tentative agreement was in place – and the news Thursday that another negotiations session has been scheduled for next week?   

    Concrete answers are proving to be somewhat elusive.  

    It's possible that the fact school board members Keith Bakken and Robin Brekken exited Tuesday's session before its conclusion muddied the waters when it comes to determining how many board members would actually vote in favor of the new contract. Although school board members who are not on the board's Negotiations Committee have been sitting in on many of the negotiating sessions, non-committee members don't have an opportunity to vote until the contract with the CEA is on a board agenda for a full vote of its six members. At the end of Tuesday's session, the only board members who remained were Tim Dufault and Frank Fee.   

    Bates, at a conference at Lake of the Woods Thursday, chose his words carefully when speaking to the Times over the phone. Asked for his take on the contract situation, he said the "reality is" that he and Business Manager Laura Lyczewski don't get to vote on the contract and that part of the process involves the two of them "gathering numbers and ideas and suggestions."   

    Bates said an agreement is "very close" and that "just a couple of small things need to be ironed out." He characterized the situation as needing to "dot the i's and cross the t's."      

    Asked what had happened since it was announced Wednesday that a tentative agreement was in place, Bates said, "A tentative agreement is always contingent on ...people walk way ...and maybe the CEA membership votes no. We're trying to make sure that any problems are eliminated before the full CEA and the full board vote."   

    Asked if he thinks those problems will be successfully eliminated at the June 9 negotiations session, Bates reiterated that he's been optimistic about the prospects for a new contract with the CEA for months, even when both sides agreed to bring in a mediator back in January. "I've always been a glass-is-half-full guy, but I want to be realistic, too," he said. "It's right there for us to get done."