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Moorhead schools, teachers still at impasse

MOORHEAD - A four-hour session this week yielded little progress when negotiators for Moorhead teachers and the School District met in a last-ditch effort to settle contracts before a state mediator hears the issue later this month.

The district is sticking to a proposal to freeze salaries and benefits, do away with retiree health benefits for new employees and tag an extra hour to teachers' seven-hour work day without extra pay.

District negotiators said the November defeat of an operating levy and a bleak state budget forecast strengthen their resolve.

"We believe our ability to pass a future operating levy hinges on our ability to control costs," Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak told union leaders Wednesday. "We believe our success at the polls will be impacted by this round of negotiations."

But teachers say the district is asking them to sacrifice too much. They would forgo a pay bump for beefing up their academic credentials and - with an extra hour a day and a pay freeze - take a de facto salary hit. Jeff Offutt, who heads Moorhead's teachers' group, noted that teachers scaled back their original proposal while the district has hardly budged.

On Wednesday, teachers proposed a 2 percent increase for the current school year and 1 percent the year after, which includes seniority increases.

The district said no.

The average teacher in Moorhead this year makes about $51,362, almost $1,000 below the state average, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. That's about $70,000 when benefits are factored in.

The district's proposal involves a shift from footing a percentage of teacher health coverage to paying a set amount. That means teachers rather than the district could absorb future premium increases.

"Health insurance is a big issue for both sides," Kazmierczak said. "It's one of our major cost drivers. It's something we feel we need to rein in."

The district also proposed to cut retiree health benefits and no such benefits for new employees starting next year.

Offutt said the health benefit changes might mean less take-home pay for teachers down the road. He said teachers have foregone larger pay increases in previous years to maintain their benefits.

The extra hour per day is a major sticking point for teachers. Kazmierczak balked at calling the proposed change a pay cut. But, Offutt said, "We are asked to work an extra hour a day without extra pay. I really look at it as a step back for teachers."

Offutt also said teachers are troubled that they didn't get a "solid answer" when they asked how they would spend that eighth hour: "A number of teachers have said if it was an extra hour we got to spend with the kids, and we got compensated for it, we'd be really excited about that."

Kazmierczak said the extra time would be for professional development and staff collaboration.

Offutt dismissed the suggestion that passage of an operating levy depended on the teacher's contract. He pointed out that in a survey last summer, almost 70 percent of residents polled agreed with the statement, "We can't expect teachers to keep improving the performance of our students unless we give them more resources" as an argument for the levy.

The district, which faces a $1.3 million deficit next year, hasn't announced if it will take a second crack at passing a levy, but Kazmierczak said that was "highly likely."

More than a half dozen area districts have summoned a state mediator after hitting negotiation stalemates. At least two districts, Lake Park-Audubon and Perham-Dent, are also pushing for "hard" freezes.