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Big turnout to support teachers in Frazee

Frazee teachers lead negotiator Jerry Bellefeuille speaks to a full Frazee Event Center as to why the teachers and school board didn't come to a contract agreement during an open forum Monday night.1 / 2
Education Minnesota President Tom Doohr told the Frazee teachers to do noble work and stay strong during Monday night's forum at the Frazee Event Center.2 / 2

"The big question: Why didn't we look at their last offer?" Jerry Bellefeuille told a full room Monday evening.

The teachers of Frazee-Vergas School District held a meeting Monday evening to explain why the teacher negotiations aren't settled yet.

Before he answered the question though, Bellefeuille explained the process that led up to Frazee being one of 25 districts in the state that didn't settle teacher negotiations by the Jan. 15 deadline, therefore costing the district a one-time fine of $25 per pupil, equating to just over $26,000.

The Frazee Event Center, plastered with posters of support including "Teachers guide the future," "DL teachers support the Frazee teachers and public education" and "Your kids are our future 2," was filled with parents, former students and other educators from Mahnomen, Waubun, Perham and Detroit Lakes.

Bellefeuille said the Frazee Education Association approached the Frazee-Vergas School Board about salary negotiations early last year, knowing there would need to be plenty of time for negotiations.

He listed some of the proposals from the school board, including a second pay freeze, taking away fringe benefits that were given in lieu of salary increase in the past, and taking out wording that would limit the end of a day.

He said they were also belittled by being asked what training is needed for a "basic" teacher.

Then, to top it off, he said, the board passed a motion at last week's school board meeting to provide $35 an hour compensation for the board's lead negotiator, Dwight Cook, and the extra research he did. That's a third more than many on the teaching staff make, Bellefeuille said.

The FEA asked the board to consider arbitration, bringing in a third party to help, but the board refused. And one of the board's last offers was a threat, that "the next one would be worse" if this one wasn't accepted.

FEA members voted down that offer 62-3.

"We truly believe we can come up with an offer that is fair," he said.

Answering his original question, Bellefeuille said he turned down the final offer Friday morning without looking at it for two reasons -- due to time restraints, they wouldn't have been able to negotiate, and since teachers didn't accept the previous offer, holding fast to the board's threats, this one was worse.

"We couldn't even look at anything less than we offered and say it was good" for the teachers as a family or the kids, he said.

Bellefeuille added that he has contacted a mediator but hasn't heard back yet.

"We want to make a good settlement for the teachers and the kids in this school," he said.

The board's proposal would not only limit salary increases, it would also not give incentives for more education. In other words, step and lane changes would be limited.

"Steps and lanes are designed to attract and retain quality teachers," explained teacher and FEA member Jim Rader.

When a college graduate starts at a district, they can earn up to 14 step increases over the years, but not necessarily one every year. With the retirement age of 67, he said, that means a teacher would go at least the last 30 years of their career with no step increases. That's where lane changes come in.

Teachers can pay for their own college courses, and with those education increases come lane and salary increases. Rader said not only is it a benefit to the teacher to have the extra education, but it can be to the district as well.

More and more students are leaving high school early to take college courses either online or through a college. With a qualified teacher, the student could stay in the district and take college credits there, saving the district money.

"We need a school that's going to prosper, not just maintain," school counselor and FEA member Ta Fett said.

For every $1 spent by the district on teacher salaries, that $1 is spent six times in the local economy, Rader said.

The meeting also played host to Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher, who told the teachers they do noble work and to stay strong because there are 70,000 educators in Minnesota, as part of the Education Minnesota union, standing behind them.

"It's been an extremely difficult year" throughout the state, he said, but educators need to stand together to get what's "good for kids and fair for teachers."

He said it's not the teachers' fault the agreement wasn't reached. There are two groups looking to compromise.

"It's not just about the academics, it's about those relationships," he said of teachers and students. "We need to have the resources because our kids are competing as they never have before."

To build those relationships and provide resources, he said schools need to be able to not only attract new teachers, but then retain them as well.

"People are with you and believe in you," he said, pointing to the crowded room.

FEA president Doug Schwarzrock said the two groups need to find a settlement to "allow us to move on and get back to doing what we really love, teaching kids."

"This is our town. This is our school. This is our people. We call them 'our kids' all the time," Fett said.

She encouraged the public to write letters to the school board, letter to the editors at newspapers and to send postcards to school board members telling them why teachers are important.

"It's not what's best for us, but best for our school," she said.

The teachers received several standing ovations Monday night, and they repeatedly thanked the audience for their support and interest.