The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 21, 2013

Mankato teachers' pay to increase 5 percent by 2014-15

Contract agreement reached fastest in many years

By Amanda Dyslin

---- — MANKATO — Mankato Area Public Schools teachers will receive a 2 percent salary increase for the 2013-14 school year and a 3 percent increase the following year, which is the largest raise in years.

The School Board approved the contract agreement for the 2013-15 school years Monday night.

Robin Courrier, president of the Mankato Teachers Association, said she credits the legislature's additional education funding and the growth in the Mankato district, which continues to bring in additional per-pupil state funding.

“I was very pleased with it,” said Courrier, lead teacher at Bridges Community School. “It showed to me it was a sign of respect for the work we're doing.”

Courrier said the union and district were able to come to an agreement more quickly than any of the previous 10 or so negotiations she has taken part in. The association overwhelmingly voted to accept the contract Oct. 11.

“I think it started out hard because we really weren’t sure what money was available. Yet, this is the earliest we've ever settled,” she said.

Supt. Sheri Allen said the agreement still allows the district to maintain its 30-day fund balance reserve. She said the contract helps with the goal of “retaining our quality teachers,” and it's in line with other agreements across the state.

“I'm so thankful to our negotiations teams,” Allen said. “We started late last spring and met through the summer, and the goal was really to be able to come to an agreement and do it in a way that people are respected throughout the process.”

For comparison, the 2011-13 contract agreement was reached in late November 2011 and increased the salary schedule .5 percent in the first year and 1 percent the second year. Beforehand, wage freezes had been in effect, Courrier said. In 2009, when an agreement couldn't be reached, both sides agreed to arbitration.

“We don't ever want to do that again,” Courrier said.

This year, facing a 10.5 percent increase in health insurance costs, changes were made to the district's health insurance contributions. Previously, the district was making a base contribution to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Basic plan. The new contract indicates the district will be paying toward the lower-cost insurance plan, the Comprehensive Major Medical plan, said Bob Ihrig, a teacher at West and chief negotiator for the union.

The agreement for the first year stipulates the district will pay 100 percent of the CMM premium for single coverage ($571.50 per month) and 91.8 percent of family plans ($1386.38).

The result of going with the lower-cost plan will be less expensive premiums with higher deductibles on the family plan, Courrier said. Although the premium savings more than make up for the deductible, she said.

The district saves more money paying percentages toward the lower-cost plan than it would if it stayed with the Basic plan, Ihrig said. Although the overall cost of insurance to the district is still increasing due to the 10.5 percent cost increase.

Year two of the contract depends on health insurance rates next year. The district's contribution will increase at a rate equal to the increase in premiums, with a maximum of 6 percent.

Ihrig compared the Basic and CMM plans, and there is very little difference in coverage, he said. About 75 percent of teachers already are on the CMM plan, Allen said.

“I think it really turned out to be an amenable agreement," Ihrig said.

Including salary and health insurance, among other things, the contract represents a 6.1 percent increase in total compensation.

Initially, the union and district had some disagreements over the budget, Ihrig said.

“We went back and did our homework in terms of what we considered to be errors in their costing models,” Ihrig said. “Once we put that out on the table, there was more money then all of a sudden, and they modified their costing model and that made things more available.”

School Board members Tom Rekstein and Judi Brandon, who negotiated on behalf of the district, said both sides were simply using different models when looking at the funds available. They said they had to wait until the district audit was completed before they knew exactly how much money they had to negotiate with.

"We never want to negotiate with dollars we don't have," Rekstein said.

Special education was one area where Ihrig was left unsatisfied when he said none of the changes were made that the union was asking for.

Ihrig said special education teachers have a great deal of legally mandated paperwork, and the union was asking for two paid days at the beginning of the school year and two at the end for them to complete paperwork. That wasn't accepted, nor was the compromise of one day at the start and end, he said.

“If they don't get that done within the required time-lines they are held liable,” Ihrig said. “(They are) having to do all this extra work and are not being compensated, particularly in terms of time. … We really didn't change anything there.”

Allen said during the last contract negotiations, the district increased the number of days special ed teachers had for paperwork. Also, if there are circumstances that require additional time, Allen said the teachers work with their principals for that allotment.

Overall, Ihrig and Courrier said they were pleased with the contract agreement and salary increases. Rekstein and Brandon said the same.

“The most important thing for me was it just showed a real strong collaboration between the district and the the union and a real strong showing of respect for the work we’re doing,” Courrier said.