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A line is drawn in the sand: Bemidji School Board approves tentative agreement, teachers' union not on board

After months of negotiations between the Bemidji Area Schools and the Bemidji Education Association, the school board approved a tentative agreement on Monday to ratify the contract.

But the two sides are seemingly nowhere near reaching an agreement. In a recent e-mail sent to its members, BEA President Paul Goodwin stated "Rest assured, there is no agreement between us (and the District)."

The tentative agreement gives teachers a 0.2 percent increase over 2008-09, a 0.3 percent for 2010-11 and no salary lane advancements for the 2010-11 school term. In addition, the annual maximum District insurance premium contribution remains unchanged at $7,275 per year for each year of the contract.

Staff salaries for the 2009-10 school year start at a minimum full-time salary of $31,574 and range as high as $64,100. The second year of the contract reflects a range from a minimum full-time salary of $31,969 to a high of $64,592.

If no contract is signed between teachers and school districts by Jan. 15, a one-time penalty fee of roughly $130,000 will be imposed on the District in the form of state aid reduction.

On Oct. 14, a state mediator was brought in to help the District and the BEA reach a settlement on their contract. Negotiation teams from the District and the BEA shook hands on a tentative agreement proposed by the the state mediator with the understanding that the District and BEA negotiators would present the offer to their respective voting authorities.

According to Goodwin, in order for a contract to be changed by the BEA, it must first be approved by the Negotiations Council. If it is approved, it then moves to the Executive Board and then finally to the general membership. Once the contract is approved by the membership, the contact can officially be ratified.

The BEA's Negotiations Council turned down the District's tentative agreement at both the Oct. 14 and Dec. 8 mediation sessions.

"Basically, both steps and lanes are not there for both years," Goodwin said. "They have just ratified a contract without our OK."

Bemidji Schools Superintendent Jim Hess said the handshake on Oct. 15 meant that the BEA agreed to support it and try to get a vote from the membership.

"Negotiations start with their membership voting on something and our board approving something and we move on," Hess said. "But it stopped right at the first committee. If it was voted down, we have a reason to sit down and talk about it again."

Bemidji Schools' Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman said the BEA's initial proposal would cost the District more than $3 million. The District's negotiation team presented a counter-offer of the current tentative agreement.

"There are school districts settling with teachers to receive steps and lanes that have 4-5 million less than this district," Goodwin said. "No data has been shown to us about (the District) receiving two stimulus packages from Obama. For a district that is data-driven, they are not showing us anything."

School board member John Pugleasa said it is unlikely the District would get away with hiding information about its finances.

"Now, so much of the data is available online," Pugleasa said. "You can go to the Minnesota Department of Education and see exactly how much we have.

"A large group of union members showed up to the meeting on Monday, but they left when it came time to talk about the truth in taxation part of it. That's an important part. They need to understand the monetary constraints are real," he said.

Chris Leinen, District director of business services, said the District is looking at very tough times financially. He said that over the course of four years, the District has received less than a 1 percent per year increase in funding from the state.

"That makes it difficult to negotiate increases in salary," said Leinen. "The first rule of accounting is you can't spend a dollar twice. You either spend it on salaries, course offerings, heat or electricity. You don't spend it on both. The very minimal increases in funding projected into the next two years could be devastating."

Now that the District has ratified its tentative agreement, a waiting game begins between both parties.

"I have not gotten any initial response (from the BEA)," Hickman said. "They put a proposal on the table that was more dollars than what was in the tentative agreement. At this point, without the vote of their membership, they have neither ratified nor rejected the contract."

Goodwin said the fact that the BEA turned down the District's tentative agreement at two mediation sessions speaks for itself.

"It's the district's responsibility to settle the contract with unions," Goodwin said. "We have clearly stated 'No' twice that this is not an acceptable contract. They decided to ratify it anyway."

"All the District asks is that the BEA fulfill the intent of the tentative agreement and offer it to their membership for a vote," said Hickman.

"It makes me sad that these tough times are not drawing us together to do what's best for our kids. Instead it is drawing us apart," said Pugleasa. "I will not vote to reopen negotiations until the BEA votes. If they voted and 90 percent of teachers said 'no way,' then we would've had to come back to table."

According to Goodwin, the teachers have spoken. And 92.6 percent don't like the tentative agreement.

Goodwin said he was asked by the superintendent to visit district sites in early November to speak to BEA members about the mediator's proposal from Oct. 14 and to gather comments.

"They (the members) were informed," Goodwin said. "As an extra point of emphasis, the Negotiations Council sent out a letter to members. 336 signatures out of 356 said they supported the Council's decision."

While the contract remains unsigned, the District is unable to move forward as far as salary or advanced education levels.

"I think not having the contract in place is a morale buster. I don't like the fact that we haven't come to an agreement. When things like this happen, people start speculating things that aren't true," Hess said.

In his e-mail, Goodwin said, "It is the duty of the district to reach contracts with all employees, not the teachers' responsibility."

He went on to write "...the union is unified and not happy with what the district has to offer."

Aside from the contract negotiations, the District will be in arbitration with the BEA on Feb. 24 on a grievance that was filed by the BEA in August.

The BEA's grievance states that the District violated its contract agreement by notifying the BEA past the contract's deadline that it would be changing its past practice of automatic steps and lanes in staff payroll.

"One key item missing in the District's tentative agreement it ratified that it was missing the grievance filed by the BEA," Goodwin said.

"I feel we can reach a solid relationship with them and do what is best for the District," Pugleasa said. "The way it is going right now is destructive. It denigrates the contributions so many teachers give to our district. This is very saddening."