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Published January 20 2010

Stalled teacher contract negotiations cost Frazee-Vergas School District

Teachers and district negotiators in Minnesota’s Frazee-Vergas schools came breathtakingly close to striking a deal on new teacher contracts.

On Friday, the two-year price tags of their proposals were $15,000 apart – $11,000 less than the fine the district incurred by missing that day’s state teacher contract deadline.

Each side to the contract dispute blamed the other for the stalled negotiation. The union hosted a well-attended public forum Monday to counter a district statement pointing out teachers had walked out Friday without looking at the district’s latest offer.

Teachers say a strained relationship between their group and the district’s administrators has interfered with reaching a settlement. They hope talks will go more smoothly with help from the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

“There’s a lot of emotional tension between the parties,” said lead negotiator Jerry Bellefeuille. “We feel an objective third party will help us reach an agreement.”

Frazee is one of 25 districts that missed the state deadline and face a $25-per-student fine.

At the Friday meeting, teachers came in with a revised proposal: They wanted the district to honor seniority and educational increases and offer them a 1.2 percent increase this school year and 1 percent increase next year.

District lead negotiator Dwight Cook says his team studied the proposal and came back with “minor revisions,” such as a $500 stipend the second year instead of seniority and education raises.

“They said they wouldn’t look at it,” Cook said. “They got up and left the table. I felt we were really close and could have reached an agreement.”

Bellefeuille said his team’s proposal was already cheaper than the district’s most recent offer, so he expected the district to accept it without more haggling.

The two sides have come a long way since the district first proposed a 0.5 percent cut. Still, “All the talks have been really strained and difficult,” said Doug Schwarzrock, the union’s president.

Teachers in the district took a “soft” freeze two years ago, a move they credit with helping to pass a 2007 levy referendum after four failed attempts. The average teacher in the

930-student district makes $44,000, about $8,300 less than the state average.

Superintendent Deron Stender also volunteered for a salary freeze, at $90,000, $18,000 less than the state average.

Teachers say they’ve sacrificed enough. But Cook says the district faces flat funding and the possibility of state aid cuts this spring.

“Things haven’t gotten better; they’ve gotten worse,” he said. “We can’t print money at the school.”

The relationship between the teacher’s union and district administration has been tense, and teachers say that has hurt negotiations. Last spring, teachers and Stender clashed over several teacher positions he proposed to cut. After a deadlocked board averted the cuts, the two sides pledged to improve their rapport.

Bellefeuille said nothing has changed.

Teachers say they are heartened by more than 300 people who turned out for a Monday forum featuring Minnesota teachers’ union president Tom Dooher.

“They told us to keep up the fight,” Bellefeuille said.

But Cook said the community expects the district to spend conservatively.

“We only passed our referendum because we promised not to give away the money to the teachers,” he said. “That to me is how the community feels.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529