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Grand Forks School Board, teachers continue to spar over pay

Grand Forks teachers and the School Board continue to disagree on salary increases.

Teacher contract negotiations have been ongoing between the two sides and continued Thursday afternoon as the two sides continue to work toward a 2015-17 contract between the two groups.

Debate at times grew heated as the Grand Forks Education Association, which represents the teachers, pushed for a percent increase across all salaries, while the board wants a dollar amount increase.

The board countered with a similar proposal to their last—to increase the base salary by $1,350 in the first year and $800 for their second year. Along with that, the most tenured teachers (those in Step 25 of the system) would get $1,000 in addition to the change in the base salary.

Teacher salaries are based on a step system, meaning teachers automatically receive salary increases each year. Under previous board proposals, teachers who are at the highest step (step 25) would not receive a raise at all because they are at the end of the system and are maxed out.

A percentage increase, the teachers argued, would make raises more equitable—particularly to the most tenured teachers who are earning a higher salary. Under the teacher's proposal, a higher salary earner would make more money because the percents proposed are higher than the flat rate the board is proposing.

Just before the meeting's conclusion, the teachers proposed a 5.5 percent increase in year one and a 3.5 percent increase in year two for all teachers. Teachers previously had asked for a 6 percent and 4 percent hike. Their latest proposal also left health insurance at their current percentages.

Currently, the base salary for a teacher in the district is $37,700. Under the board's latest proposal that would increase to $39,050 in the first year and $39,850 in the second year. With the teacher's latest proposal, the base salary would be $39,773 for the first year and $41, 264 in the second year.

Teachers argue their salaries are lower than their peers across the state. Grand Forks teachers rank last among school districts of similar size around the state.

The board, however, has argued they do not have enough money in the budget for the teachers' proposals. Board members said the district needs to maintain a healthy reserve for future years.

"Teachers would consider themselves an asset that should be grown and protected," said Tom Young, chief negotiator for teachers. "I have to tell you right now, I hear that the teachers are being considered a financial liability and a cost that needs to be controlled. ... That's at odds with the idea of attracting and maintaining high-quality teachers."

Board member Douglas Carpenter said the district has other things to look at in their budget.

"Teachers aren't the only employees in the budget, and we have to look at overall budget restraints," Carpenter said. "We don't look at teachers as a liability, but we still have financial considerations to take a look at."

In North Dakota, there are no deadlines for teacher negotiations, and strikes by school employees are prohibited.

The teachers must decide whether to pursue advisory arbitration by June 15. During this process, a representative from both sides tries to come up with a final recommendation for their team.

In the Grand Forks Education Association contract, the bargaining unit has a 45-day window from the start of negotiations to pursue this option. If both sides are still deadlocked after arbitration, the teams are considered to have reached a formal impasse. The state then assigns a fact-finding commission to create a recommendation.

Alternatively, if both teams ignore the 45-day window and find themselves deadlocked, they've also reached impasse.

At Thursday's meeting it did not appear as if an arbitrator would be used for the negotiation. The two sides tentatively agreed to negotiate again July 8 and to meet for longer than the typical two-hour session.

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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