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School board, teachers hit standstill over contract

After three hours of discussing teachers' contracts, Grand Forks teachers and the School Board hit a standstill Wednesday on salary increases.

Both sides agreed to meet once more to determine whether the negotiation process for the 2015-17 teachers contract requires state intervention.

The meeting ended with the board requesting a 2.8 percent increase for all salaries the first year and a $900 increase the second year. Teachers requested a 5.4 percent increase for all salaries the first year, a 3.4 percent increase the second year and no change to health insurance, which saves $240,000, they said.

A beginning teacher currently makes $37,700 the first year. Under the board's proposal, teachers would make $38,756 the first year and $39,655 the second year. Teachers requested $39,773 the first year and $41,125 the second year.

"We have to get to $40,000," said Paula Salentine, a teacher negotiation member. "We continue to fall behind on teacher salaries."

Negotiation teams on behalf of the Grand Forks Education Association and the School Board grew contentious at times, sparring over what district funding is available. Teachers in the audience grew vocal, too, with loud murmurs or sounds of protest.

Board member Vicki Ericson said she was "very disappointed" by the behavior of the teacher negotiation team and the audience.

"We've been feeling disrespected by the offers coming our way," said Tom Young, the chief negotiator for teachers. "We've been feeling disrespected at the lack of any attention given to the concerns teachers have. (They have) just been summarily dismissed."

Negotiation continued Wednesday after the June 14 deadline passed for teachers to pursue local arbitration. North Dakota has no time limit for teacher negotiations, but the board negotiation team cannot declare an impasse on their own, Superintendent Larry Nybladh said.

According to state law, the negotiation team must receive approval from the full School Board to negotiate further or declare impasse, he said.

Teachers have long maintained the district has surplus funding and consistently overestimates the cost of teacher salaries, while board members say the district simply can't afford their request in pursuit of a balanced budget.

No budging

Negotiating board members and teachers didn't budge on their requests for salaries and class prep time.

Board members first suggested a 2.6 percent increase across all salaries the first year and a 1.4 percent increase the second year, allowing more tenured teachers to receive a raise.

Previously, the board requested a $1,350 increase to base salaries the first year and $800 the second year, as well as an additional $1,000 for the most tenured teachers.

In Grand Forks, teachers automatically receive salary increases each year through a step system. Increases to base salaries don't apply to long-time teachers who are at the end of the salary schedule.

Doug Carpenter, a negotiation member for the School Board, said the new request would ease some equity issues teachers had raised in previous meetings. But district calculations show expenditures are going up and their offer is the only way to a balanced budget next year, he said.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future," he said. "We can't make any predetermination that there's dollars available. If they don't show up, we're looking at increased costs. What we settle on doesn't stop in two years—it's built into the schedule."

Dawn Mord, a teacher negotiation member, said the board's request means beginning teachers would still make less than $40,000 after the second year. Teachers have fought to raise the starting salary here to $40,000, saying that will help the district remain competitive with others across the state and retain quality teachers.

According to calculations by the teachers' negotiating group, the district ended the 2013-14 fiscal year with a 21 percent carryover in savings, the costs for professional salaries are consistently overestimated — amounting to a $1.5 million surplus over the past three years — and state and local funding is projected to increase. Teachers consented to lower increases two years ago when the district faced deficit spending, but now that it shows a surplus, teachers should get paid more, they said.

Teachers also stood their ground on a long-standing request for more prep time for elementary teachers throughout the week. Board members rejected the idea, saying that should be addressed by school administrators.

"We believe administration has gone far in trying to address some if not all of the issues," said Carpenter.

Both sides will meet again July 22. The next School Board meeting, where negotiating members can inquire about an impasse, will be held Monday.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com.