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Duluth teachers approve two contracts

Duluth school district teachers approved the terms of two two-year contracts last week, an unusual feat in Minnesota.

Approved in the first contract were increases of 1 percent in 2017 and 1.5 percent in 2018. In the second contract — which runs from 2019 to 2021, increases of 2 percent each year were approved.

The Duluth School Board will vote on the contracts next week. An agreement with district administration was reached after two and a half days of meetings, said Tim Sworsky, district human resources director, who noted the actual cost increases for each year had not yet been worked out. A 1 percent increase had been figured into the district's $1.9 million budget deficit that is on track to be balanced pending School Board approval next week.

The Duluth Federation of Teachers is happy with the contract results, said its president, Bernie Burnham.

"There were no real sticking points," she said. "We want to be helpful and we know the budget is tight."

She said the two sides were able to agree on two contracts — a newer trend in the district — because of the stability it creates and because of an ongoing labor management process.

Sworsky said there is risk in approving increases four years out because the district's future financial situation is unknown, but if administration had not agreed to that, the union would not have agreed to smaller increases in the first contract. Both Sworsky and Burnham said the negotiations were cordial.

Highlights of the 2017-19 contract include:

• The pay of hourly teachers was increased by 5 percent.

• The amount given to teachers for experience was increased by $100. For example, those who have worked in the district for 20 years will earn an extra $1,800 the first year, and $1,900 the second year. By the end of the second contract, that person will be earning an extra $2,100. Experience pay kicks in at year 15. A little more than half of district teachers are at year 15 or beyond.

• New teachers will start at a slightly higher rate of pay with the elimination of the first step for each lane of pay, which is about $36,000 for a first year teacher with a bachelor's degree, for example. Burnham said it's a move in the right direction in a state that's experiencing a teacher shortage.

• In the second contract, a new step was inserted into the salary schedule at two different points that would mean a smaller jump in pay than what's offered now. Teachers with a master's degree at step eight of the schedule currently jump from $59,145 to $68,368. That would be cut in half, as would one other step.

The union had emphasized a need for more resources related to the social and emotional needs of students, such as more counselors. Those requests aren't reflected in the contract, Burnham said, but the district agreed on the importance and both sides said work in those areas would continue despite no stipulation in the contract. For example, there is an effort to bring training to schools that would teach employees how to work with students who are dealing with trauma outside of school.

It is unusual to approve two contracts at once, but not unheard of, said Megan Boldt, a spokeswoman from Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

She noted only about 3 percent of the districts tracked by the state union have settled contracts so far, and an average salary isn't reported by Education Minnesota until at least 10 percent are settled.

The membership of 700 employees includes teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists and nurses. About three of every four teachers in the district have both a master's degree and have been employed with the district for more than 10 years, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics.

Most board members Monday night expressed support for the contracts, commending both sides for completing the contracts in a timely manner.

Member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp said she was happy there was "give and take" between the parties and that two contracts were approved.

"That helps us as a district do better planning," she said.

The current contract expires June 30.

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