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Moorhead teachers' contract a departure

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

MOORHEAD -- Although not quite the "hard" freeze the district championed, Moorhead teachers' new contract marks an abrupt departure from recent negotiation rounds.

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After years of outpacing average compensation increases in Minnesota, Moorhead's new two-year contract will bump up costs 3.6 percent, just below an early state average of 3.8 percent.

On the heels of consistent benefit gains, the settlement overhauls the way the district chips in for coverage - changes officials say will yield millions in savings in coming years.

And for the first time in at least 20 years, a district that prided itself on so-called collaborative negotiations resorted to outside help to settle the dispute.

On Monday, Moorhead teachers and School Board members approved the agreement after 11 negotiation sessions, two of them with a state mediator.

"The big message from the district's perspective is we've taken major steps to address long-term costs that were going to cripple the district," said Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak. "The overall cost of the contract pales compared to the savings we'll realize long term."

The district gave in on some of its original demands. It will honor lane changes, or pay increases teachers score by earning graduate credits. Teachers will receive a $500 raise - or 0.9 percent - each year.

The district also dropped its proposal to tag on an extra hour to teachers' seven-hour work day without extra pay.

Teachers made a slew of concessions. The district froze seniority increases, and it converted its insurance contribution to a dollar amount rather than a percentage, which means teachers will absorb premium increases.

The district will contribute $534 per month the current school year for a single teacher and $1,056 per family. Next year, the single coverage will jump to $750 per month, with $1,162 per family.

The district also did away with retiree insurance benefits for new employees, and it will revise its current $10 co-pay retiree insurance plan for existing employees next year to reduce costs.

In addition, teachers and officials made a commitment to explore entering Q-Comp, a Minnesota program that links teacher pay to performance.

The dollar cost of the settlement for the district will be about $1.3 million over two years.

Jeff Offutt, the Education Moorhead president, said the new contract might hamper the district's ability to attract talented teachers. He worries the benefit changes might spur experienced teachers to retire sooner to take advantage of the more generous current plan.

But, he said, "I'm glad it went as well as it did with the way the state government has been funding education."

Kazmierczak said he would present a revised budget deficit number to account for the contract's cost at the next board meeting. The district previously estimated it might have to cut anywhere from $500,000 to $1.2 million this spring.

The district is considering trying for the second time to pass an operating levy in November, and Kazmierczak said he hopes the settlement will signal the district's resolve to rein in costs to taxpayers.

The average teacher in Moorhead makes about $51,000, almost $1,000 below the state average.

Based on data from the Minnesota School Board Association, Moorhead teachers have recently received the following two-year increases in total compensation: almost 12 percent for 1999-2001, almost 12 percent for 2001-03, 10.7 percent for 2003-05, about 10 percent for 2005-07 and almost 8.5 percent for 2007-09.

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