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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Crookston School Board/CEA Contract Talks: Contract saga at a critical juncture

  • Board meets Monday evening, but vote on contract doesn’t look like it’s going to happen
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  •     If the agenda for the Crookston School Board meeting for today, Monday, at 5 p.m. includes a resolution to vote on a two-year contract agreement with the teacher's bargaining unit, the Crookston Education Association, board member Dave Davidson said Monday, he believes it would be approved 3 to 1. (Davidson and board member Robin Brekken would abstain from voting since each of their spouses are teachers.)   
        But that vote might not happen Monday. As of press time Monday, a resolution on the new contract that had been removed from the agenda late last week had not been put back on the agenda, even though board chair Frank Fee said Monday that he would be discussing the agenda with Superintendent Chris Bates, and that it was Fee's stated desire to have the contract be on the agenda for a vote.   
        Meanwhile, the CEA negotiations team, led by teacher Brian Follette, thought a tentative agreement was in place last Wednesday. So did Bates. Both reported that development to the Times that day. But at some point after that supposed turn of events, it was determined that two out of the three members of the board's Negotiations Committee, Keith Bakken and Robin Brekken – both of whom showed their frustration with the process by leaving last Tuesday's negotiations session prior to its conclusion – would not vote in favor of the two-year deal. That left Tim Dufault as the only member of the Negotiations Committee who remained at the session and voiced support for the agreement for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.   
        The board members spoke at a special school board meeting this morning, Monday, at 7 a.m. in the school district office conference room to discuss negotiations and the contract. It was advertised to the media last Thursday as a negotiations session with the CEA, but when Follette subsequently notified the board that the CEA felt a tentative agreement was in place and would not participate in the Monday morning session – see the accompanying story – board members and Bates instead discussed the board's next steps.   
        Those steps may or may not involve a vote at Monday's board meeting. Monday morning, Brekken questioned the purpose of the Negotiations Committee if two of its three members can be against something and yet it is able to advance to the board for a full vote anyway.   
        Davidson, meanwhile, prior to Fee saying that he would, after the Monday morning meeting, discuss with Bates the possibility of putting the contract back on the agenda, said he read the school board policy manual provisions that relate to the agenda, and that a "person" in the school district can ask the superintendent to have a matter placed on the agenda. Davidson said he considers himself a "person in the school district" and that he had, therefore, asked Bates to have a resolution relating to the contract on Monday evening's agenda for a full board vote.
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    The tentative deal   
        The contract parameters that were part of the apparent tentative agreement call for no teacher salary schedule increase in the first year, and a 2.5 percent increase in the second year. In the first year, the 45 teachers of the 97 on staff who previously reached the top "step" in regards to their experience and, therefore, no longer receive wage increases related to seniority milestones reached, would receive a one-time $1,000 stipend.    
        As for health insurance, which has been the primary point of contention in negotiations between the two sides and with a mediator over the past several months, the high-premium, low-deductible package known as the "first-dollar plan" would no longer be offered to new hires as of July 1, 2014 and would sunset at that point. In other words, it would basically no longer be an option for any new hires or anyone else to switch to, but teachers that are currently on the first-dollar plan, whether it's the individual plan or the family plan, would be able to stay on it. Around half of the teaching staff is on some form of the first-dollar plan. As part of the new contract, teachers on the first-dollar plan would 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.   
        Bakken and Brekken cited multiple reasons for their opposition to the contract, most of which relate to insurance. They both stated Monday they "could live with" a 10 percent increase in what the teachers pay for the first-dollar plan and a cap on the school district's HSA match. Also, Bakken said, the board previously identified $800,000 as the increase in costs it could take on in a new contract, and the current deal on the table pushes that to $909,000.   
        Citing a counter-offer "out of nowhere" last week in which the CEA negotiators added a third and fourth year to the contract, Brekken said he thinks the CEA negotiators are "playing games." He offered to go to arbitration, he added, but the CEA declined. "We were close (to having a deal) and then they came back with something totally different," Brekken said. "What they're offering is not going to achieve any control over health insurance in the district."   
        Bakken said he felt "slapped in the face" with the CEA's counter-offer last Tuesday and that's why he left. "Actually having the audacity to suggest that the way to solve this is to spend more on health insurance...we're so out of skew on health insurance and so out of skew with the industry standard on health insurance," Bakken said.   
    Page 3 of 3 -     Brekken said his constituents that elected him are telling him to not give in on the insurance issue in the contract. Bakken sort of echoed that, too, saying he called the district's health insurance costs the "800-pound guerrilla in the room" when he first ran for the school board, and said then that that guerrilla was preventing the district from investing in other things, such as larger salary increases for teachers.   
        Fee, Davidson and Dufault – board member Adrianne Winger was not present Monday morning – countered that the CEA has been agreeing to insurance-related concessions in previous contracts, and that the board can't get everything it wants in one contract. Negotiations on the next contract with the CEA will likely commence in November, Fee said, and the board can seek continued "piece by piece" concessions on insurance in those negotiations.   
        "The mediator said if we want changes in insurance, we have to buy it from them (in the form of salary increases). We're not going to get everything we want in one year; they're not going to give it all to us just because they're nice guys," Dufault said. "My constituents are telling me they want this done, too. They want us to fix the buildings, get new curriculums, and teach kids."   
        Monday's board meeting will take place at New Paths Area Learning Center downtown.
        

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