• EREA leaders, membership reach out the public to say they want a contract — and now
by Jim Boyle
Amid growing frustration over the lack of a contract, District 728 teachers took their disappointment public Monday outside District 728 offices.
As rain fell and the Elk River Area School Board met in closed session, teachers hoisted placards with messages such as “teachers have value,” “honk if you support teachers” and “fair and equitable.”
Teachers in the Elk River Area School District are among about 40 independent school districts out of the more than 330 across the state to be without a contract, according to Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, who turned out for the informational picketing session.
District 728 teachers have been working without a contract for 316 days, according to one rain-soaked sign used in the picketing session from 5-7 p.m. along Highway 10 as well as Lowell and King avenues.
Modified interest-based negotiations started May 28, 2013. There have been 17 bargaining sessions and on Nov. 22 the two sides took their talks to the Bureau of Mediation Services. Six mediation sessions have not produced a contract.
The signs teachers bounced up and down gave little indication of what the stumbling blocks are at this point. Neither side — the school district or the teachers union — have have been too forthcoming about negotiations or proposals being batted around.
The two sides thought they had reached a settlement April 5, but it unraveled when it was realized there was a misunderstanding in what was on the table during a marathon negotiations session.
The two sides returned to the mediation table last week to no success, and now the mediator is not available until June, according to Bill Hjertstedt, the president of the Elk River Education Association.
The union has asked for members of the Elk River Area School Board to directly participate in the process. And with the close of the 2013-14 school year approaching, the union decided to turn up the heat with the informational picketing session.
Elementary school teacher Carol Boelter led the teachers in a simple chant: “What do we want?” to which union members of the EREA replied, “a contract.” She followed it up with “When do we want it?” to which members replied,“now.”
Among those who showed up to support the EREA’s efforts were union leaders from the Anoka-Hennepin School District and Education Minnesota, which represents more than 70,000 teachers.
“We’re here to help them in their quest for a fair and competitive contract,” Specht said. “There are more than 40 school districts without a contract, and at this time of year that’s 40 too many.”
Specht said it shouldn’t be so difficult to reach settlements this year.
“For the first time in 10 years, the Legislature invested in school districts,” she said. “There’s money to invest in the educators. It’s a no-brainer.”
Specht was referring to the Legislature’s 1.5 percent increase to the per-pupil funding to each of the two years of the biennium and another $134 million for all-day kindergarten funding starting this fall.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District did not have an easy round of negotiations.
“Ours was drawn out and contentious, at times,” said LeMoyne Corgard, president-elect of the Anoka-Hennepin teachers union. “But we had a first that our school board actually came to the table our final two meetings and we got it done.
“That was a change in paradigm. It took having the stakeholders in the room, instead of filtered messages.”
Corgard said negotiations in Anoka-Hennepin usually take six to eight meetings, but this most recent round took 15.
Proposals for one-time payments that are not built into the salary schedule and proposed health insurance changes were the biggest stumbling blocks, said Corgard, noting he was in Elk River on Monday to support his union brothers and sisters.
“They support us,” he said. “Some of their teachers showed up at our meetings. Obviously, we want to do what’s right for kids … and have good working conditions. Our work environments are our kids’ learning environments.”