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Teachers say Grand Forks lags in pay

Lake Agassiz Elementary teacher Nicole Reybok said she took a $15,000 pay cut to teach in Grand Forks this year during contract negotiations between teachers and the School Board Wednesday.


Lake Agassiz Elementary teacher Nicole Reybok said she took a $15,000 pay cut to teach in Grand Forks this year during contract negotiations between teachers and the School Board Wednesday.

Reybok, who used to teach in Minot, told School Board members she couldn't afford to live in the city on her salary alone.

She moved here because her husband found a job, and she left behind a district that offered better pay, benefits and a shorter school day, she said.

"I took a massive pay cut to be here," she said.

Reybok was one of two teachers who spoke at a meeting between the Grand Forks Education Association and board members. It was the first time both groups have discussed salary and benefits as they negotiate a 2016-2017 contract.


Debate at times grew heated as the union pushed for base salaries to start at $40,000 for the 2015-2016 school year and increase to $42,000 for 2016-2017 to remain competitive with state districts.

Teacher salaries are based on a step system, meaning teachers automatically receive salary increase each year.

But some board members rejected the initial proposal, saying the district's estimated $94 million general fund next year couldn't handle it. Ward Johnson, chief negotiator for the school board, said it was not sustainable along with the teachers' other requests.

"There's no way with the available funds this year, without a mill increase or reducing the reserve, that that can be done," he said.

Initial proposal

In the initial proposal, the union requested higher base salaries and more contributions by the district to the state Teachers Fund for Retirement.

The teachers also want to raise teachers' automatic pay increases by $100 each year for those who have worked anywhere from one to 14 years. In addition, it asked the district to pay 2 percent into the teachers' retirement fund in 2015-2016 and 4 percent in 2016-2017.

During the last bargaining round, teachers received a 0.8 percent increase in 2013, moving the base salary of a beginning teacher up to $36,850. For 2014, teachers received a 2.3 percent increase, or $37,700 for a beginning teacher. Teachers' contributions to the state retirement fund increased by 2 percent during this time, which reduces take-home pay, said Dawn Mord, negotiating team member.


At the meeting, the School Board countered with reducing the base salary increase to $300 instead of $2,300 in 2015-2016 and $500 instead of $2,000 in 2016-2017, drawing sounds of disgust from some teachers in the packed audience.

Tom Young, chief negotiator for the union, and others said Grand Forks should spend more on teacher salaries to remain competitive.

"It's expensive, but we believe it's worth it," he said.

One of the district's main goals is to attract and retain good teachers, and some are leaving the district for better-paying options elsewhere, he said. Twenty state districts pay beginning teachers higher salaries compared to Grand Forks and not just ones in oil-boom counties, he said.

Grand Forks ranks 13th in teacher salaries statewide, behind like-sized including Bismarck, Minot and Fargo, as well as smaller ones, he said. The highest beginning salary statewide was $45,720.

"Wyndmere pays starting teachers more," he said.

Some board members said deficit spending would follow if the request were approved. According to Business Manager Ed Gerhardt's calculation, the initial proposal translates to an 8 percent increase in pay and benefits for teachers in 2015-2016 and a 7 percent increase in 2016-2017. Those increases include costs related to Social Security and other benefits, but do not include contributions to the state retirement fund, he said.

Overall, that means $3.7 million in teacher salaries for 2015-2016 and $3.5 million in 2016-2017. School officials say 84 percent of the district's budget is dedicated to salaries.


The meeting ended with the union's proposal to retain the initial base salary increases, eliminating the 4 percent district contribution to the state retirement fund in 2016-2017 and requiring the district to pay 2 percent toward the retirement fund starting in 2015-2016.

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