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Menahga School faces $20,000 penalty as contract deadline nears

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Menahga School staff negotiating committees must settle the 2009-11 teacher contract by midnight Friday to avoid almost $20,000 in retained state aid funding.

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Reaching an agreement by the deadline is not likely to happen, said board vice chair Jody Bjornson, who served as the district's head negotiator until the end of 2009.

"I think we made a lot of progress but we're not close enough that it's gonna fly," he said. "We don't see, as a board, that we have the money that they want."

Teachers are asking for additional salary compensation that the district won't settle for because of a dismal economy.

State law penalizes districts $25 per student if teacher contracts aren't resolved by the end of the day Jan. 15. Menahga's 768 students would cost $19,200.

Proposals

The board's original proposal is a soft freeze for each of the two years, which means no salary increase beyond the required steps and lanes schedule.

The total package growth is 2.38 percent for the two years, calculated based on a Minnesota School Boards Association formula.

The district's latest proposal includes an additional one-time stipend for senior teachers who otherwise wouldn't receive any extra compensation because they've reached the maximum 15 steps/years.

Each of those 26 teachers would get about $700 - the total amount is equivalent to the penalty fine.

"Instead of that money going away, if we can offer that much money to them ... that would maybe get them to approve this contract," Bjornson said. "But it doesn't seem to be doing any good."

The local union, Education Minnesota Menahga, didn't accept the proposal. So negotiations are back to square one.

"These are all 'what if' proposals. As soon as they reject that, it goes away and we go back to our original proposal," Bjornson said.

EMM's head negotiator Allan Cleveland said the one-time payment of $700 to seniors wouldn't be fair to the others.

"So basically, the younger teachers, other than their step and lane increase that has already been negotiated, would get nothing," he said.

EMM's latest proposal is a 3.87 percent package increase that includes benefits and salaries, also calculated based on the MSBA formula.

There is a 2 percent salary increase for the first year and a 1.5 percent increase for the second in that proposal.

The reason for negotiating the extra pay is that teachers have been taking on extra work with professional development communities, technology training and data analysis, Cleveland said.

"We don't have any problem with it. We feel like classroom teachers should be growing and participating in professional development.

"But if you're going to expect people to go over the extra mile, then we're just looking for a little additional compensation," Cleveland said.

State aid cuts

This year the Legislature is withholding 27 percent - about $1.5 million for Menahga - of state aid funding to schools until the next fiscal year.

"It's looking really tough for the next couple of years and beyond," Bjornson said. "So we're trying to just get through it and (teachers) are having a hard time understanding that we don't have the money to give them."

Superintendent Mary Klamm said the district is afraid it will never see that 27 percent.

"There is just so many unknowns with what will happen at the Legislature to schools," she said.

'A lot of baggage'

The two sides have been negotiating since October and all of the small details have been ironed out.

But Menahga seems to be notorious for missing the Minnesota Department of Education deadline to settle contracts.

"That's been kind of a long standing thing with Menahga for the last 20 years," Bjornson said. "They hardly ever settle before the deadline."

He added that the board has always been strict with its proposals and unwilling to settle for something not fiscally responsible.

Cleveland has been an elementary teacher for 24 years and part of the negotiating committee on and off for at least five rounds.

"There is a lot of baggage that's kind of accumulated over the years between the two bargaining teams," he said. "I'm afraid a lot of times that gets in the way of a successful negotiation."

Park Rapids' settlement

The Park Rapids School Board settled its contract after negotiations ended late December.

The board agreed to a 1/4 percent increase for 2009-10, for both steps and lanes and a 3/4 percent increase for 2010-11, with no steps, lanes only.

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