GFPS, teachers reach tentative deal on 'largest increase to a contract in district history'
After months of sometimes combative discussions, Grand Forks teachers and School Board members have reached a tentative agreement on the 2015-17 teachers contract.
Both sides spent three and a half hours Wednesday ironing out salaries and approving language for more elementary prep time, the two biggest sources of disagreement since talks began in late April.
Negotiating School Board members made a last-ditch offer for a total 9.92 percent increase including benefits over the two years, what one board member referred to as "the largest increase to a contract in the history of the school district." Salaries for a first-year teacher would start at $38,925 in the first year and $40,000 the second year. That compares to the current salary of $37,700.
On a night intended to determine whether state help was necessary to settle the contract, the offer met the consistent request of the Grand Forks Education Association to raise the starting salary to $40,000 or more. But the board didn't initially budge on adding more prep time for elementary teachers, a request from which teachers refused to sway.
At times, both sides grew argumentative and tense. When teachers initially didn't accept the School Board's proposal over the elementary prep time, Tom Young, chief negotiator for teachers, said it appeared they had reached an impasse.
"You would turn down, on behalf of your teacher group, the largest increase to a contract ever given in the history of the Grand Forks School District?" negotiating board member Vicki Ericson asked.
Negotiating board members met July 13 with the full board to gain approval to either declare an impasse or negotiate further. Contract talks hit a standstill at the last meeting, and both sides agreed to determine whether to declare an impasse at Wednesday's meeting.
In addition to the salary increases, both sides agreed to form a commission to study how to embed more prep time for elementary teachers.
Negotiating School Board members said they'll try to present the contract to the full board for approval sometime next week.
The negotiated agreement means a 3.25 increase to all salaries in the first year and a 2.76 percent increase the second year, a significant step by board members toward meeting the teachers' requests.
"I have to underscore that this is our best and final offer," said Ward Johnson, chief negotiator for the School Board. "This is not us asking for a counteroffer. This is the end of the line, the most we're authorized (by the full School Board) to go."
At the last meeting, board members suggested a 2.8 percent increase across all salaries the first year and a $900 increase the second year. Teachers had requested a 5.4 percent increase across all salaries the first year and a 3.4 percent increase the second year.
Negotiating teachers have frequently said starting salaries have to be $40,000 or higher to retain and attract qualified teachers. They've also said more prep time for elementary teachers—representing about one-fifth of Education Association members—should be included in the contract, but board members have disagreed.
School Board members maintained Wednesday that administrators had been and should continue to manage problems at each school. In addition, they said the district is already pursuing ways to add in blocks of teacher prep time, but teachers said this had started before negotiations. They also said administrators have not successfully managed the problem in the past.
Teachers have repeatedly stated the amount of time teachers have contact with student needs to change, Young said. Currently, teachers are allowed 300 minutes of prep time per week, but teachers wanted more uninterrupted prep time.
Time spent escorting children to the parking lot—about 15 minutes each day—takes away from much-needed prep time and doesn't allow teachers "to do the work they've been asked to," he said. Dawn Mord, a negotiator for teachers and an elementary teacher, said she's sometimes waited a half an hour for parents to pick up students.
After several meetings of tense discussion, some wondered if it might lead to state intervention. Both sides strongly disagreed over what the district could afford, with teachers saying the district consistently overestimates the cost of salaries and board members insisting they want to avoid future deficit spending.
But by late Wednesday evening, teachers in the audience gave both negotiating teams a round of applause. Mord said she felt they had reached a good agreement, while Doug Carpenter, a negotiator for the School Board, said the agreement was a better one than he originally anticipated.
"It was a long process that had a lot of ups and downs, and at times it was very frustrating," he said. "But the result today makes you feel good. That we were able to come to an agreement on both sides to the benefit of the kids and teachers, it was worth all of the work."