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Menahga School settles teachers' contract hours before deadline

After months of negotiations, Menahga School Board settled the 2009-11 teachers' contract just seven hours before the state imposed deadline Friday.

According to the board's figures, teachers will get a 2.15 percent increase to the salary schedule for the first year and a 2.10 percent increase for the second year.

The total cost increase to the district is about $235,000, which includes health insurance and all other benefits, board chair Durwin Tomperi said at a special meeting Friday.

But according to Education Minnesota Menahga, the settlement comes with a 1 percent increase to the salary schedule each year, and a total cost to the district of $120,187, head union negotiator Allan Cleveland said.

The discrepancy comes as a result of the way each side reports their numbers.

"We are reporting what is going to have to be paid out in the settlement," district business manager Liz Olson said. "We report all cost."

The district added the automatic step and lane increases, which total about 1 percent, to what the union asked for, the reason for coming up with a 2 percent increase to the salary schedule, Olson added.

Friday's vote to settle passed 5-1, with treasurer Curtis Hasbargen voting against it.

"Two-hundred and thirty-five thousand is too much considering the funding for the next eight years is expected to be flat or negative," he said. "There is either going to be cuts, raising taxes, borrowing money or a combination of all three."

During the negotiation sessions over the past few months, the board proposed a soft freeze, meaning teachers would get no salary increase beyond the required steps - added experience - and lanes - added education.

The freeze would have cost the district about $135,000, Tomperi said.

But in addition to the state imposed penalty for missing the deadline, which is $25 per pupil, the total cost "that this board has no control over" would be about $155,000 without a settlement, he added.

So it came down to a difference of about $80,000 - between the board's offer to freeze, plus the penalty, and the union's proposal for a salary increase.

"It's our responsibility as board members to not compromise the financial integrity of our district," Tomperi said.

According to Education Minnesota, the union representing teachers statewide, 24 school districts including Brainerd and Frazee have missed the deadline to settle.

The union estimates more than half of the state's teachers accepted salary freezes in one or both years of their new contracts. Salary increases averaged about 0.77 percent in the first year and 0.96 percent in the second year.

"This is a very good settlement," Menahga's superintendent Mary Klamm said. "We're right where everyone else seems to be."

Last week, Nevis School teachers agreed to a frozen salary schedule with step and lane increases only and a $500 stipend to senior teachers who aren't eligible for step increases.

In December, Park Rapids Area School District settled with a 0.25 percent increase to the steps and lanes schedule for the first year, and a 0.75 percent increase to the lanes schedule only for the second year.