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GF School Board team rejects teachers' salary request, offers 'unconventional' contract

The Grand Forks School Board has offered teachers an “unconventional” salary package that proponents say will put more money in teachers’ pockets and save money for the district.

The net effect for teachers is “a 9.6 percent increase over the next two years, rather than the 8 percent asked for by the GFEA (Grand Forks Education Association),” said Amber Flynn, head of the board’s negotiating team.

The proposal, presented at Tuesday evening's negotiation session of board and teacher representatives, came after the board team rejected the teachers’ proposal, which called for salary increases of 3 and 5 percent, respectively, in each of the next two years.

The new board proposal includes a 2 percent wage hike in each of the next two years and, for the first time, calls for the school district to pick up 100 percent of the employee contribution to a retirement fund. Teachers pay 11.75 percent and the district pays 12.75 percent of their salary to the Teachers Fund for Retirement, or TFFR, said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager.

The proposal also includes a 1.9 percent increase in salary for each step in the district’s salary schedule.

“That 11.25 percent would not be part of their salary, but would be an employee benefit,” Berge said.

Tom Young, who heads the GFEA negotiation team, said, “It’s a big change for the Grand Forks district to look at how teachers are going to be compensated on the salary schedule that way. To pay all of the teacher’s portion to the TFFR is a pretty big proposal to lay on the table. It’s a lot of information to look at and a lot of numbers to go through.”

The topic of a district picking up the full employee contribution to TRRF “is one that’s never been talked about before in a real sense, so we find that interesting,” Young said. “It has come up in informal conversations -- along the lines of, what’s the advantage of doing that, what are the pitfalls? -- but now we’ll be talking about it in a real way. So now we’re not going to have just theoretical conversations about that; we’re going to have some real homework to do.”

“We do appreciate the steps that the board is apparently showing in wanting to put some sort of competitive proposal up that is really worthy of serious consideration,” Young said. “But we don’t know how much their proposal is going to cost, so we really don’t know how money they are talking about investing in this proposal yet -- that’s part of our research as well that we need to do.”

The next negotiation session is set for June 3 at the Mark Sanford Education Center.

For an individual teacher, the latest contract offer means increases ranging from about $2,000 to $3,500 per year, depending on the teacher’s level of education and years of experience, said Berge. Of the total increase teachers would receive, 1 percent -- resulting from the district picking up the total employee contribution to the TRRF -- “is the equivalent savings to the teacher because the salary reported for Social Security and Medicare purposes would decline,” he said.

“Less Social Security and Medicare tax would be withheld.”

This tactic would mean that a teacher earning $55,000 a year -- the average teacher salary in the district -- would have “just under $500 more in their paycheck over the course of a year,” Berge said.

The school district would see $400,000 in savings each year “because the employer has to match the payment to the IRS for Social Security,” Berge said.

About 37 percent of North Dakota school districts are paying 100 percent of their employee contribution to the TRRF, Berge said. So “we are not on the forefront on something new.”

Flynn, who also serves as vice president of the School Board, said the proposal “is an unconventional way to get more money in the hands of teachers.” She emphasized to the GFEA team that “we came in at our top number; we cannot go over this amount.”

The only downside to this approach is the question of how it may impact employees’ Social Security payments in the future, Flynn said.

If the teachers accept this contract proposal, all other district employee groups -- school principals, directors and classified staff members -- also must approve it before it can be put into effect, said Flynn.

In addition to Flynn, those negotiating for the board are Doug Carpenter, Jacqueline Hoffarth and Shannon Mikula.

The GFEA negotiation team is comprised of Young, Dawn Mord, Melissa Buchhop and Penny Tandeski. Amanda Weston Caillier is GFEA president.