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Bemidji School District: Stalled contract negotiations could reduce state aid

Negotiations have reached a stalemate between the Bemidji Area Schools District and the Bemidji Education Association.

But a solution will need to be reached soon. Under statute, the contract between the District and its teachers needs to be signed by both parties by Jan. 15, 2010, or a hefty, one-time funding penalty will be imposed.

According to District Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman, this penalty would roughly cost the District $130,000 in the form of state aid reduction.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, an arbitrator from the bureau of mediation services will hold a meeting with the District and the BEA to discuss a grievance filed by the BEA in late-August.

The meeting will be held at 7:30 a.m. at the district office, 3300 Gillett Drive N.W. It will be up to the arbitrator at that time to decide whether the meeting will be open or closed.

In late August, the BEA filed a grievance against the district, stating the district violated its contract agreement by notifying the BEA past the contract's deadline that it would be changing its past practice of the automatic payroll of steps and lanes for staff.

Members of the BEA and the district must follow the negotiated rules outlined in the employee contract active from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2009.

A letter of intent was filed April 20 by the BEA to open negotiations on the agreement. Once negotiations are open, changes and additions can be submitted up until a certain deadline, which has been debated by both parties.

BEA Teacher Rights Chairwoman Meredith Kehoe said the deadline for the district to notify the BEA of changes was May 1. Superintendent Jim Hess did not send the letter until at least one month later, she said.

Hess said the district did no wrong by sending notification before the contract's expiration of June 30.

To make changes in the contract, each side must work together to reach a tentative agreement. If the simple majority of membership votes in favor of the change, it is ratified on behalf of the teachers. As for the district, in order to ratify a change, the school board would have to have a majority vote to make a change.

"If the mediator cannot get both sides to agree, it stops right at the district office," said BEA President Paul Goodwin. "Both sides have to agree to something to have a vote."

The district will need to evaluate whether the cost of the one-time penalty would be less than committing to ongoing costs of salaries and benefits, Hickman said.

Taxpayers would not know the exact amount of the one-time penalty fee until the state determines the adjusted pupil count of the district.

"The economic forecast is not rosy or optimistic," Hickman said. "We could actually be looking at a reduction in our state aid."

This concern makes contract negotiation difficult, particularly in schools where 75-80 percent of budget is for staff salary and benefits, Hickman said.

"The union has been pretty strong," Goodwin said. "The members have really spoken out about the steps and lanes."

According to Goodwin, more than 350 school districts in the state are going through negotiations with unions. Around 45 have settled their contracts.

"We value the work that our employees do and understand that they need and deserve and appropriate contract settlement. We are a people business," Hickman said. "But if your costs go up for salary and benefits, and you don't have the source of new revenue with increasing costs, it puts us in a difficult situation."