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Perham teachers see two-year salary freeze

In an agreement that both parties say is not ideal, the Perham-Dent School District and the Perham Education Association have signed a contract that freezes teacher salaries for the next two years.

The agreement, good through June 30, 2013, offers teachers a one-time stipend of $500 (for full-time teachers, or prorated lesser amounts for part-time) but no annual raises. There was no change to the district's contributions to heath care benefits; teachers will pay more out of pocket if premiums go up.

Also, teachers may now earn one discretionary day for every 420 minutes of lost prep time due to certain circumstances, such as substituting for another teacher. These minutes do not carry over from year to year.

At the end of the two-year contract, teachers will be moved up to their appropriate salary levels. Some could be eligible for raises at that time, depending on how many years they've been with the district and whether they hold a master's degree. In the meantime, some that would have been due for an increase will be out a few hundred dollars -- or even a couple thousand -- because of the salary freeze.

High school math teacher Kyle Knutson, one of three leading negotiators for the union, said negotiations were "a little frustrating at times, and disappointing."

"I think it's a situation where both sides walk away not happy," said Superintendent Mitch Anderson. "Teachers deserve more, and the school board would like to provide more. But it comes down to a lack of funding."

The union agreed to the terms of the contract in "a close vote," according to Perham Education Association President Darren Glynn, a teacher at the middle school. While not all teachers are happy about the agreement, he added, "We understand that times are tough and we've been willing to step up."

The contract is a money-saver for the cash-strapped district, as it keeps further increases out of the picture. Even the one-time stipends won't impact the general budget, as they're being funded through a federal stimulus program intended for educational employment.

Still, both the teachers and school administrators worry about the negative impact the salary freeze could have on the district, especially in terms of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

"We all want the best teachers to come to our community," Glynn said. "We're going to have 11 retirees this year, and priority will be getting the best candidates to fill those positions. I'm worried that if we're getting a reputation (as a district with little money)... that your 'rock-star' type teachers are going to start shopping around."

Perham teachers have seen only marginal salary increases over the last eight years, with many seeing no increases at all for the last four to six years. Their current starting salary of just over $31,000 (for a teacher with a bachelor's degree) is about $2,000 less than the state average.

"We're trying to keep teacher salaries in the market range," said Jim Rieber, the district's chief negotiator. "We have to be fair and responsible with the resources that we have available."

While so far the money hasn't kept good teachers away from Perham, Anderson said, it could become an issue down the road if the district can't afford to raise wages.

Both sides say the problem lies in inadequate state funding.

"We need to change something at the state level to get schools funded better," Knudson said. "Not just for teacher's salaries, but for supplies, buildings and grounds (etc.)... education's been put in the back seat by the state, and that's hurting us."

"You want to reward the teachers for the job that they do, because they do an outstanding job, but it's really tough... we don't have a lot to give," said school board chairperson Cyndy Huber.

As of last Thursday, 142 school districts across Minnesota had settled contracts with their teachers. Perham-Dent is one of only two of those to offer no changes in the 'steps and lanes' salary schedule.

"What I'm really worried about is teacher morale," said Glynn. "We continually get hit with negativity... our classes are going up, we're dealing with less support staff, less resources... and on top of all that, teachers are getting no new money into their contracts. I just hope people will keep a bright outlook."

Anderson commended the teachers for their understanding of the district's financial situation, and for their willingness to work with the district to reach an agreement.

Though some are unsatisfied, he said, it doesn't show in the classrooms: "It's business as usual. We are continuing to produce good education."