A rarity in Minnesota: two consecutive teachers’ contracts were approved by the Duluth School Board on Tuesday night during a special meeting.

The move added time to the school year and increased compensation to teachers by $3.6 million over four years.

The board voted 5-2 to approve the contracts covering 2013-15 and 2015-17, with members Harry Welty and Art Johnston opposing the measure.

Terms include no raise this year, but a 3 percent raise next year, and 2 percent increases each of the following years. Teachers also will receive increases for education and experience each year, included in the $3.6 million. The increase to benefits during the duration of the two contracts is $2.1 million, with a 1.7 percent health insurance increase for next year. Projected increases of 6.5 percent to health benefits in the second contract are high estimates, said Bill Hanson, district business services manager.

Other highlights include:

  •  Nine minutes added to the school day at East and Denfeld high schools.
  •  Three days of instruction added to the school year for all students, meaning a Sept. 2 first day of school and one teacher work day turned into a regular school day. Teachers will report back to work two days earlier in the summer.
  •  Health insurance eligibility increased next year from teachers who work half-time to those who work 24 hours a week.
  •  A maintenance of the amount the district pays into health reimbursement accounts, which is $1,900 for singles and $3,800 for families. The potential existed for the district to pay more next year because of changes within the district’s insurance plan. The issue would be revisited each year.
  •  Elementary teachers instructing more than one grade in a class would get $500 more per year beginning next year.
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Union leaders have said insurance was a sticking point, and they would have liked to see more time allocated during the workday for teachers to meet together, but overall are pleased with the agreements.

During discussion Tuesday night, Johnston made an amendment to remove the second contract from the resolution, which failed.

He and Welty talked at length about their concerns regarding the expense that comes with being locked in for four years, although Johnston advocated for insurance eligibility to remain the same because of how it will affect employees in other bargaining units. The terms of the teachers’ contracts are generally the same for all employees.

“I anticipate we will no longer have the ability to lower class sizes with this particular contract,” Welty said, “And will have even bigger class sizes in a few years’ time. With two contracts it’s a very tall order to reign in these problems.”

Chairman Mike Miernicki said there were many benefits to two contracts, including long-term financial stability.

On Monday, Chris Williams, press secretary of Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, said it’s “not unprecedented, but it is uncommon” for a school board to approve two contracts in one sitting. He said he hadn’t heard of it being done during this contract cycle.

Member Annie Harala said she was proud of the level of experience and education the district’s teachers have, which pushes costs higher.

“I did a lot of research,” she said, noting some districts in the state settled for larger percentages. “This was not a light decision for me.”

Member Bill Westholm said he was uncomfortable “in many ways,” over the contracts, because he wants to spend the public’s money wisely.

“But looking at this over a period of time, the plusses outweigh the minuses,” he said.

Duluth teachers will earn on average $56,880 this year, according to statistics kept by the Minnesota Department of Education. That doesn’t include benefits. Of the 670 full-time equivalent teachers employed by the district this year, more than 80 percent have a master’s degree. Almost 70 percent of the teachers have worked in the district for 16 years or more, and the average age of a teacher is 49.

Of the 331 regular districts tracked by Education Minnesota, 13 percent - or 40 districts - remain unsettled. Duluth is included in that number. An average of 2 percent increases per year have been approved.