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Contract deadline nears in Detroit Lakes, Frazee-Vergas school districts

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Contract deadline nears in Detroit Lakes, Frazee-Vergas school districts
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FARGO -- It's been a season of all-nighters for Minnesota contract dispute mediators and of heated negotiations cutting close to the state's teacher contract deadline.


As the Friday deadline looms, a divisive round of teacher negotiations in the state is winding down. Most districts in the area have at least tentative agreements, a majority of them offering considerably more modest raises than in previous years.

In Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton and Frazee-Vergas, negotiations will continue into this week. Statewide, these districts are not on their own: Minnesota is poised to set a record for the number of districts missing the deadline, which carries a $25-per-pupil penalty.

The Minnesota School Board Association estimates 175 to 200 out of 340 districts have settled teacher contracts.

"It was a difficult year; school districts faced real hurdles," said MSBA Deputy Director Bob Lowe. "They're potentially facing four years of no new revenue, and that makes negotiations very difficult."

Moorhead and Lake Park-Audubon recently reached an agreement with help from the state Bureau of Mediation Services. School officials are holding off on releasing any information for now.

The height of the holiday season saw some district and teacher negotiators come to an agreement.

In Detroit Lakes last week, teachers ratified a tentative two-year agreement that offers a roughly 1.4 percent raise per year and a small increase in district insurance contributions. The district's original proposal was a pay freeze.

"The last two rounds of negotiations here in Detroit Lakes have been rather involved," said Superintendent Doug Froke. "Both parties are feeling the pressure of how K-12 is funded in the state and the demands of the economy."

In Perham, teachers agreed to the first district pay freeze in recent memory. The contract will not honor seniority increases until next year. The district originally proposed a "hard" freeze; teachers sought a modest increase.

"A lot of people would say if neither side is happy, it was a good process," said David Knudsen, lead negotiator for the Perham teachers group. "I guess that applies to our case."

Perham and Pelican Rapids, where teachers also agreed to a freeze, are considering asking taxpayers for help in November.

In D-G-F, a Thursday mediation session that stretched until midnight didn't yield a contract.

"We made some progress, but we didn't reach a final agreement," said Superintendent Randy Bruer.

The district is looking to schedule another session with a mediator this week, and Bruer is hopeful D-G-F can still dodge the deadline penalty.

Meanwhile in Frazee, teachers and district negotiators will meet again Monday to try and restart stalled talks. Teacher union leader Doug Schwarzrock said educators there volunteered for a two-year freeze in 2007 when the district was gearing up for a repeat operating levy vote. Now with the levy in place, he said the district can afford the small increase teachers have requested.

Superintendent Deron Stender counters the teacher's proposal will cost the district $250,000 a year, at a time when state funding will likely stay stagnant at best.

Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Steve Hoffmeyer said the specter of flat funding and even possible aid cuts has weighed over negotiations. With 168 districts resorting to the bureau's services, it's been its busiest season since 1993.

"We've had more all-nighters," said Hoffmeyer, who mediated a 17½-hour session last week. "We've had a lot of work on holidays and weekends."

Experts expect about 60 districts to miss Friday's deadline, up from 14 in 2008.

Since many districts haven't reported their settlements yet, it's hard to generalize about the outcomes. Packages are clearly more modest than two years ago.

Still, "Most people expected to see low settlements across the board, and we haven't seen that," Lowe said. "I'm a little surprised at the variance we have. We have districts that settled for larger amounts than I would have projected and some that settled for very little."

To Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher, the settlements have essentially called on teachers to sacrifice in order to balance school budgets - something he worries could hurt recruitment and retention down the road.

"What teachers and school employees have been asked to do is take on these problems that here in St. Paul the governor and the legislature failed to address," he said.