A slew of area Minnesota districts and their teachers groups have now enlisted outside help to break stalemates in teacher contract negotiations.
Moorhead and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton took the lead in summoning the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services a month ago. Now, Pelican Rapids, Perham-Dent, Frazee-Vergas, Lake Park-Audubon and Fertile-Beltrami have also signed up for the bureau's services in the midst of its busiest negotiation season in the past decade.
Meanwhile, several area districts reached agreements with their teachers unions. Ada-Borup, Ulen-Hitterdal, Fergus Falls and Norman County East arrived at markedly more modest salary and benefit hikes than two years ago.
"You know that if you ask for a larger amount of dollars or benefits increase, you probably will be looking at losing a co-worker in the spring," said Margaret Liebl, the co-chief negotiator for teachers in Ada-Borup.
There, teachers accepted a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for 2009 and 2010 each and a slight increase in benefits. Both sides were eager to avoid resorting to mediation as they did in 2007, a process Liebl described as "just nasty."
Last spring, Minnesota froze school aid for the next two years and delayed some payments, setting off an especially tough round of negotiations. Education Minnesota, the teacher's union, cautioned against hurting morale by balancing budgets at the expense of teachers.
At least two of the local districts pursuing mediation services this year are pushing for a hard freeze: no cost-of-living, seniority or benefit increases. That's the case in Moorhead, where teachers and district negotiators have agreed to meet one last time next month before a Dec. 22 mediation session.
"It's just another chance for us to come together," said Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak. "Hopefully we can make more progress than we have so far."
Teachers have asked for a 2.5-percent raise the first year and 1 percent the second, in addition to seniority increases. The total package increase would be roughly 9 percent over two years, Kazmierczak said.
In Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, the two sides are about to schedule their second mediation session. The district has proposed a 1-percent increase the first year and just seniority raises the second.
"We made miniscule progress," said Superintendent Randy Bruer, who worries the district won't make the Jan. 15 deadline for finalizing contracts and might get hit with a $25-per-pupil penalty.
Dan Boyd, the teacher's group negotiator, said a marked spike in enrollment this fall made for more robust finances - and more work for teachers. The district started out the school year with about 30 additional students compared to fall of 2008.
"We understand where the district is coming from, but we also understand the increase in enrollment," said Boyd.
In two area districts, Perham-Dent and Pelican Rapids, requests for mediation services came after voters in both communities turned down pleas for extra money in November. In Lake Park-Audubon, where voters passed an increased levy, Superintendent Dale Hogie said the successful vote doesn't affect the district's proposal: a hard freeze.
Hogie, who volunteered for a pay freeze this year, said the levy will simply sustain current programs and class sizes.
"We're holding strong on a freeze," said Hogie, who added teachers put forth a "very modest proposal."
"We can't incur future costs we can't maintain."
Statewide, about 150 districts have requested mediation services, including 56 in November alone, the most in that month since 1993, said Steve Hoffmeyer, the commissioner of the Bureau of Mediation Services. Because of the bureau's hectic schedule, districts will likely only get one session with a mediator before Jan. 15.
Some are predicting an even more intense negotiating season in two years.
"I think two years from now it's going to be a lot worse for both parties dealing with budgets," said Jerry Nesland, superintendent in Mahnomen, where teachers saw a salary and benefit increase that was less than half the one in 2007. "I just don't see any new money coming from the state in the next four years."