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Pelican Rapids teachers accept contract

PELICAN RAPIDS -- On the heels of two failed school levy votes in as many years, teachers in Pelican Rapids have accepted a "soft freeze": The district will honor seniority pay increases but offer no cost-of-living or benefits increases.

The local teachers group had requested some help from the state Bureau of Mediation Services, whose winter schedule was filling up fast. But the two sides settled the two-year contract before a state mediator arrived.

"Teachers are aware the district's in financial peril right now," said School Board Chairman Don Perrin. "They realize we're struggling to keep class sizes down."

The School Board is expected to approve the new contract Monday.

District negotiators initially approached teachers with a proposal that involved a 2 percent pay cut. Teachers, who were hoping for a slight increase, volunteered for a soft freeze.

"I think both sides were happy with what happened," said Steve Sorenson, the teachers union head. "We were pleased with what we got."

Perrin said for the district's veteran teachers at the top of the seniority ladder, the settlement means no pay increase over the next two years.

He said most districts in the area that have already settled their teachers' contracts offered a 1 to 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase.

"If we did what some of the other school districts are doing, we'd have to cut two or three teachers just to afford that," Perrin said.

School leaders are gearing up for another round of budget cuts in the spring, which will almost certainly claim staff members, Perrin said. The district, one of fewer than 10 percent in the state without an operating levy, is also considering another try at the polls in November.

"I don't think we have any choice," Perrin said.

Minnesota Department of Education figures show the average teacher in Pelican Rapids makes $50,890 a year, roughly $1,500 less than the state average. A beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree makes about $34,000.

This year marks the busiest negotiation season in a decade for the Bureau of Mediation Services in budget deficit-plagued Minnesota.

Other area Minnesota districts and their teachers will meet with a state mediator in coming weeks. Moorhead's session is next week. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton is looking to line one up in early January.