District, EREA settle contract

by Jim Boyle

The Elk River Area School Board ratified a teachers contract settlement at its last meeting of the 2011 calendar year.

The two-year settlement, which has been described  by school district officials as reasonable and affordable given the circumstances, represents a total package increase of 5.342 percent over the last settlement.

The $70.6 million pact includes salary increases in addition to previously negotiated performance increments (steps) and education (lanes) for the first time in three years.

The last two-year contract settlement, a $65 million pact, did not include increases to the salary schedule, and the negotiations needed to reach that deal got more contentious at the end.

“We accomplished so much last time,” said Rod Barnes, the executive director of labor relations and personnel services. “We didn’t get as much done this time. But we have agreed to work on some initiatives.”

Bill Hjertstedt, the president of the EREA, said teachers are pleased to get the deal accomplished and back to being able to focus on the classroom. He said the process has been collaborative the last two rounds, and this one went particularly well.

“The district’s fund balance has been able to grow and the district is on good financial footing for the future,” Hjertstedt said. “And no one has had to be laid off.”

This time of year two years ago, contract negotiations between the Elk River Area School District and Elk River Education Association were just starting to heat up.

There was informational picketing where a smattering of teachers took to posts outside the schools to hoist placards and implore the district to negotiate.

The district was seeking zero increases and huge cultural shifts in how the district and the teachers union dealt with rising health care costs.

There was a looming Jan. 15 deadline that would have imposed a penalty of nearly $350,000 had a settlement not been reached by the end of that date.

This time around there was no threat of a penalty. The Minnesota Legislature removed  that stipulation.

“We could afford to do some things and still keep our eye on the prize and stay the course for all of our long-range goals,” Barnes said of the district’s negotiations.

Roll-up costs account for most of the 5.342 percent increase. They amount to 4.066 percent of it, or $69.6 million.

Here are the highlights of the district’s financial investment into 2011–13  contract settlement.
2011–12: No increase to the salary schedule. Teachers will each receive a 1.25 percent one-time off the salary schedule payment.

2012–13: 1.25 percent salary schedule increase.

2012–13: A $200 increase to longevity step 17+ on the salary schedule.

2011–12: a $50 increase in the district’s Section 105/HRA contribution.

2012–13: 1.25 percent increase in the activities/athletic cluster pay schedule.

2011–13: No increase in the district’s contributions toward health insurance premiums.

The district’s cap on what it pays for health insurance premiums went into effect after  the last round of negotiations. Premiums went up by 13 percent overall, and plan members took on that expense through their choice of health plans.

The school district, meanwhile, will continue to promote wellness initiatives through the assignment of a HealthPartners wellness coordinator. That’s  all part of the district’s three-year contract with HealthPartners, which the district switched to after being with Blue Cross Blue Shield. Employees are encouraged to take charge of their health in the Journey Well program.

2011–12: a $15,794 decrease in the district’s contribution toward dental insurance premiums.

Barnes and Randy Anderson, the executive director of business services, expect the economicclimate still will be tough in a couple of years when the next contract is negotiated. Barnes said that was one of the reasons the district tried to negotiate some increases this time around.

“Is it realistic to think we would negotiate zero percent for six years?” Barnes said, answering for himself with the sheer tone of his voice.

He says other districts that negotiated increases in the previous round are now working for holding salary schedules at bay. One district, he said, is looking at doing away with steps and lanes (Minnetonka).

Both sides agreed to enter into conversations about topics such as teacher presence in the classroom, issues affecting teacher workload, health and wellness, evaluations of teachers, online programming and activities cluster schedule.

The district and the teacher’s union migrated away from Interest Based Bargaining that was used in the last round, which kept the negotiations process quieter than the last. There were not regular joint updates.

A mediator was used at the end of the negotiations for three sessions to help finish off the process.

Contract highlights at a glance:
• Total cost of settlement: $70.6 million
• Total package increase: 5.342 percent
• 2011–12: There was no increase to the salary schedule in the last contract. Teachers will each receive a 1.25 percent one-time off the salary schedule payment based on this most recent settlement.
• 2012–13: 1.25 percent salary schedule increase
• 2012–13: A $200 increase to longevity step 17+ on the salary schedule.