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Bemidji teachers asking for increase in pay, benefits

Teachers in the Bemidji School District fall behind other districts in the state in pay and health insurance benefits, according to Jason Koester, chairman of the Bemidji Education Association's settlement committee.

He said with annual pay and benefits, teachers here are on the bottom tier of what teachers make on average at school districts in Brainerd, Alexandria, Moorhead, Grand Rapids, Willmar, Sauk Rapids and Winona.

"We want to get back to the average (of the group of comparable school districts)," Koester said. "We're not asking for top pay or benefits, but we are an above-average school and so we feel we should be at least average in our comparable group."

Teachers with the BEA and Bemidji School District officials are continuing to negotiate possible changes to the current and 2012-13 school year contracts.

So far, BEA representatives have met with school district officials 11 times, including once last week. A mediator from the state's Bureau of Mediation Services will meet with both sides for a second time Feb. 15 in an effort to resolve issues so a tentative agreement can be reached.

Every two years, school district teachers have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their contract. Currently, teachers are working on the pay scale from the 2010-11 school year.

Koester said for the past four contracts teachers have "not taken a very good set-tlement" and said they have fallen far behind.

The teacher contract signed in 2010 included a 0.2 percent increase in base salary pay for 2008-09 with a full time salary range of $31,574 to $64,100, and a 0.1 percent increase for 2010-11 with a full time salary range of $31,606 to $64,164.

School Board member Bill Faver, who is on the school district's contract negotiations team, said while the school board does not want to see teachers' salaries be in the basement, he said it's hard to compare the school district's health benefits to what other school districts offer in health benefits.

"Different school districts offer different benefit plans and choices, so it's hard to make a comparison," he said.

School Board member John Pugleasa, who is also on the district's negotiations team, said he is not interested in seeing school district teachers be the poorest compensated district in the comparable group.

"We agree we want to attract the best and brightest teachers," he said. "As a school board member, there's nothing in it for me to try and stick it to our teachers. But the reality is we can't say 'thank you' with money. There is no new money."

Koester believes the district should offer a competitive contract "in order to maintain and recruit high-quality teachers."

"If you can go 90 miles south to Brainerd and make $8,000 more, why wouldn't you?" he said.

Two years ago, teachers agreed to take a zero percent increase in health insurance benefits, Koester said. Since then, he said health insurance costs have increased by 25 percent.

"On a single plan, that's $2,000 a year and we had nothing more toward that, so that's a pay cut for us," he said. "We have a lot of teach-ers who made more money five years ago then what they are making now. We need to bump that up to help offset the cost of health."

Pugleasa said during contract negotiations two years ago the BEA did not place as much of a priority on renegotiating the terms of the health insurance coverage.

"There was a significant increase based on usage in medical inflation we all feel the impact of," he said. "It's hard to predict the future. Now it is a big item of priority. From a school board position, I have no desire to see people be short-changed in that arena, but the tools we have to work with are limited."

Faver said the school board has been concerned about losing ground on providing health insurance benefits, but said the district has made proposals to improve its standing in the comparison group of school districts.

"We bid out to other places, formed committees to look at other options to provide health care to teachers and reduce the costs, and have made a lot of collaborative effort to reduce the gap," Faver said.

Another area of the contract still needing to be settled is the number of instruction hours in a day.

According to Jordan Hickman, the district's director of human services, the school district is looking to increase the hours of instruction time per day.

Koester said the BEA is flexible to having more instructional time as long as teachers are paid for it.

Pugleasa said he feels the community would be OK with the school district wanting more teaching time for students and agreed teachers should be paid for the additional instruction time if it is being required.

"These are good people," he said. "They teach our kids. They do a marvelous time."

Two years ago, district and BEA officials struck a deal hours before the school district would have incurred a state-imposed, one-time penalty fee of roughly $130,000 for failing to meet the state-mandated Jan. 15 bargaining deadline.

The 2011 Legislature re-pealed this deadline.

The BEA would like to have the teachers' contract settled sooner rather than later, Koester said, but without the deadline in place, he is not sure how realistic his plea is. He said he wishes the deadline were still in place.

"Before, people made a push to get it done by Jan. 15. Without it, there's nothing to push," he said. Without a contract, it means our health insurance benefits aren't going up and we're still taking an in-home pay cut."

Pugleasa said one of the challenges in negotiating contracts is it can sometimes turn into "a battle."

"It becomes personal," he said. "It is my belief we can do a better job at this. I wish we could move away from such positional bargaining and do more interest-based bargaining. We're all on same team. I hold no malice toward teachers. I want to see this get this done so we can get back to educating our students."

Faver said he thinks what makes negotiations challenging is the lack of transparency.

"People get little bits of information and run with it without knowing the whole package," he said. "Negotiations are very stressful, time consuming and a difficult process. We are glad when they are done."

The district's negotiations team includes Pugleasa, Faver, Hickman, Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, and Superintendent James Hess.

The BEA's negotiations team consists of Mary Kobil-ka, Ami Aalgaard, Tim Mayc-lin, Rob Strand and Keoster.

Teaching contracts operate on a two-year term, be-ginning July 1 of each odd-numbered year.