Duluth teachers OK contracts

Duluth school district teachers approved the terms of a pair of two-year contracts this week after about a year of negotiations.

The numbers in favor were “more than adequate,” said Frank Wanner, outgoing president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers. The exact breakdown of how the roughly 600 members voted was not available Friday.

The School Board will vote on the contracts May 6 at 6 p.m.

“The people on the negotiating team feel like we worked hard this year to protect the things our members have and try to keep things in line the best we could,” said Bernie Burnham, a third-grade teacher at Laura MacArthur Elementary who will become president of the union July 1.

The contracts are for 2013-15 and 2015-17. The first one includes no raise this year and a 3 percent raise next year. One percent of that amount is for time added to the school year. The second contract includes 2 percent raises each year.

Teachers will continue to receive pay increases for experience and education. The average teacher salary this year is $56,880. The level of experience and education of the teaching staff, along with the salary scale, affects the district’s average. Last year, the average was $61,680, but more than 50 teachers retired last year, many in long-time positions.

The contract also includes these points:

Health insurance eligibility would be increased next year, from teachers who work half-time to teachers who work a minimum of 24 hours a week.

Maintaining the amount the district pays into health reimbursement accounts, which is $1,900. The potential existed for the district to pay more next year because of changes within the district’s insurance plan. The issue would be revisited each year.

Beginning next year at Denfeld and East high schools, nine minutes would be added to each day. Elementary teachers instructing more than one grade in a class would get $500 more per year, beginning next year.

Some of the “no” votes probably came from teachers upset about the changes to health insurance and the lack of a raise this school year, Wanner said. Others were hopeful that time would have been set aside during the teacher work day for teachers to gather together and collaborate to raise achievement, called “professional learning communities.” Some schools with special funding have that, but most teachers must do it outside of the work day.

“We couldn’t find any way that wasn’t cost-prohibitive, but we’re still working on it,” Wanner said, noting lowering class sizes was a bigger priority.

The union also worked to increase class time for media, art, physical education and music teachers, for example, and get more pay for teachers who work at schools designated as low-achieving. Those things did not end up in the contract.

“We started out close to where we ended up settling,” Wanner said, noting a lot of time was spent talking about insurance issues.

Burnham said increasing insurance eligibility was a sticking point.

“We worked hard to keep it at (half-time) for the longest time,” she said. “(But) we realized that probably next to no places have that anymore.”

Because the district has a “me-too clause,” negotiators understood that paraprofessionals, bus drivers and other support staff who work fewer hours in a week would be affected by the decision when their contracts are negotiated.

“We are concerned with their welfare,” Burnham said. “They help us every single day.”

Union treasurer Mike Zwak said although the contract talks went on much longer than recent years, they weren’t adversarial. Through the district’s labor management process, he said, work will continue on some of the points that weren’t settled.

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