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Bemidji School District, teachers settle contract

Paul Goodwin, president of the Bemidji Education Association, speaks to the Bemidji School Board after the board approved a revised tentative agreement with the BEA on Friday. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

After weeks of negotiation sessions between the Bemidji School District and the Bemidji Education Association, a tentative agreement was reached.

The signed agreement came just hours before the District would've incurred a one-time state funding penalty fee of approximately $130,000 if the parties did not ratify and sign a contract by the statutory deadline of 11:59 p.m. Jan. 15.

The BEA voted 191-74 (one person abstained from voting) to approve the revised tentative agreement with the school district. The school board voted 4-0 to rescind its Dec. 21, 2009, approval of a tentative agreement, and to approve the revised employment agreement for the period of July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011.

School board members Ann Long Voelkner and Steven Johnson were not present.

"This was a very strenuous, emotional rollercoaster over the last eight months," said BEA President Paul Goodwin. "There are some hard feelings and I hope we can move on and learn more for the next time. I want to emphasize the hard work that the teachers of this community did. Without them we would've have got this far. Some are happy. Some aren't. But they came together for the betterment of the district and for the community."

Negotiating teams from both parties worked throughout the day on Friday to come to an agreement in hopes of warding off the state's contract negotiations deadline.

On Friday morning, the BEA was invited by the district to enter into a negotiation session. After almost four hours of negotiations, both parties shook hands to a tentative agreement at approximately 1:30 p.m. A draft was written by District Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman and sent to the BEA negotiation team.

At 7 p.m. the school board called the meeting to order. The board approved a motion to take an hour recess, as recommended Hickman, to allow the BEA negotiations team to finish counting the ballots from its membership vote on the tentative agreement.

"We did our best to give the members an opportunity to see something and vote on it prior to the deadline," said BEA Lead Negotiator Ami Aalgaard. "After a healthy discussion, we took a vote and it did pass."

The board again convened at 8:05 p.m. with the BEA negotiations team to approve the revised tentative agreement.

The revised tentative agreement includes the following:

- A 0.2 percent increase from 2008-09 and a 0.1 percent increase for 2010-11.

- Salary step and lane adjustments will be provided each year.

- The annual maximum District insurance premium contribution remains unchanged at $7275 per year for each year of the contract.

- The salary schedule for the 2009-10 school year reflects a range from a minimum full time salary of $31,574 to a high of $64,100 and the second year of the contract reflects a range from a minimum full time salary of $31,606 to a high of $64,164.

- Continued funding of the retiree fringe benefit pool at $450 per full time equivalent employee for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 years.

- Maximum sick leave accumulation increased from 125 days to 150 days.

The projected total two-year cost of this agreement is $1,302,741, which includes all costs for salary steps, lane increases, schedule increases, insurance premium contributions, TRA contributions FICA and other fringe benefits.

"The main thing was that steps and lanes were included in both years of the contract," Aalgaard said. "There was a small amount in the salary schedule. The important thing was that there was something even if it wasn't huge. We understand the economic times, but with health costs rising, we need to be held somewhat harmless."

The tentative agreement also included the withdrawal of the pending grievance arbitration filed regarding the District's June 2009 notice of intent to discontinue the past practice of recognizing step and lane advancement in the year following the expiration of the master agreement between the District and the BEA.

"I am grateful to the teachers," said school board member Bill Faver. "That means more teachers will have their jobs in the future. That has a positive impact on educators in community and their families. I am very grateful to the sacrifices that the teachers have made."

"It's been a hard negotiation," added school board member John Pugleasa. "I believe that we, as a board, care deeply about the education of our kids. We are passionate about that. We don't teach one class, we don't prepare one lesson plan, we don't coach one sport. I am personally grateful to those that teach my own children and those that teach other children. I hope we can work together to do the best we can to those kids who call Bemidji home."

Superintendent Jim Hess said he was pleased the parties had reached an agreement.

"After participating in over 20 negotiation sessions that started early and went late, the board places a high value in teachers and their contributions to their school and community," Hess said. "Through this process we can move ahead and address some of the issues that surfaced. We want to work to do our best and continue to keep children first."

Education Minnesota, a union of 70,000 educators, estimates more than half of the state's teachers accepted salary freezes in one or both years of their new two year contracts.

The state educators' union estimated 309 of the state's 344 districts met the Jan. 15 deadline to reach settlements with their teachers. The 35 districts which are not expected to make the deadline face a $25 per student fine.

The union also reported that salary increases averaged just 0.77 percent in the first year, and only 0.96 percent in the second year, both of which are the lowest settlements on record. The average teacher salary in Minnesota is $51,938, compared to the national average of $54,333. The average starting salary for a Minnesota teacher is just $33,009.

According to Education Minnesota, one of the most difficult issues in this year's bargaining was the soaring cost of health insurance. Studies have shown those costs, far more than teacher salaries, are responsible for escalating expenses to schools.

"It was not always amicable, but it was always professional. I appreciate that very much," Aalgaard said. "I'm very proud that our BEA can speak and appreciate each other even when we don't agree all the time. We are consummate professionals. I was very proud to represent this group."

"If I could please everybody, that would be ideal. But it's not possible," Goodwin said. "Teachers will realize what we've done to move forward to help the community out and the district out."