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UPDATE: Teachers union, district reach contract settlement, avoid fine

The Morris Teachers Association and Morris Area School District negotiators reached a two-year contract agreement Friday night and avoided a potentially stiff penalty by settling before a midnight deadline.

The negotiations pushed the issue to near the limit, with MTA members agreeing to the package Friday night and the Morris Area School Board following suit in an emergency meeting following the MTA vote.

The State of Minnesota mandates that districts and teachers settle contracts before midnight Friday or the district would have been fined $25 per student. Based on Morris Area's enrollment, the fine would have totalled about $23,000.

"That's important because I don't think any of us wanted to give the State of Minnesota any more money," Superintendent Scott Monson said, referring to past and future state school funding reductions. "We've already given them quite a bit."

The MTA and the district apparently reached agreement on a "soft freeze," which gives teachers pay hikes based on steps and lanes, but freezes wages. Steps and lanes increases are based on years of service and education. Teachers were concerned since a large number of them had reached the end of their lanes and would not benefit at all from step and lane increases.

The district countered with a one-time "career bonus" payment of $200 per teacher for next year only. The payment is off the salary schedule and will not be part of on-going costs for the district, Monson said.

The MTA rejected the district's offer earlier this week. MTA lead negotiator Deb Swezey said members approved of the settlement by about 76 percent.

Swezey said earlier getting some compensation for teachers who no longer benefit from step and lane increases was an important part of the negotiations. Members also received concessions on personal leave days and how many could be accumulated, she said.

"At least they gave the top people something," Swezey said. "It wasn't a lot but we realize it might be all we were going to get."

Swezey said that members became concerned by news this week that the state is considering further delays in school funding to erase a $1.2 billion deficit in its current budget.

The district also will need to go before voters this fall to replace, and possibly increase, an expiring levy.

"Members read about (the state's plan) and realized its not going to get better in one year or two years," Swezey said, adding the MTA members have worked on the same salary schedule the last three years. "People realize the state has not come through for schools."

Morris Area teachers apparently aren't alone among Minnesota educators accepting contracts that call for pay freezes.

Education Minnesota, the union of 70,000 educators, estimates more than half of the state's teachers accepted salary freezes in one or both years of their new two-year contracts. Salary increases averaged just 0.77 percent in the first year, and only 0.96 percent in the second year. They're the lowest settlements on record.

An estimated 315 of the state's 344 districts met the Jan. 15 deadline to reach settlements with their teachers. The 29 districts that were not expected to make the deadline face the $25 per-student fine, according to Education Minnesota.