Carlton teachers union ratifies two contracts

After nearly two years without a contract, teachers and school district officials not only reached an agreement on the current contract, they also ratified the next one.

After nearly two years without a contract, teachers and school district officials not only reached an agreement on the current contract, they also ratified the next one.

"For the first time in recent memory, we're done early," said Steve Therrien, head negotiator for the Education Minnesota-Carlton union. "So now we have a two-year period where we can do some real building of relationships and perhaps curriculum. ... I hope we can make this a tradition."

It didn't come easily.

The previous contract -- for the 2009-2011 academic years -- was ratified in March 2011. Teachers had been working under the terms of that contract since that time. After almost two years of failed negotiations, the two sides tried professional mediators earlier this year.

That didn't work either.


While they didn't quite lock themselves in a room and throw away the key, Therrien and Carlton Superintendent Peter Haapala met face to face several times over a period of two-and-a-half weeks and reached a compromise both sides could live with.

"I don't know if our conversations were out of bounds, but they certainly were untraditional," Therrien said. "Two people in a room, asking what it will take to make it right, because it isn't working. Let's put all the cards on the table and get this thing done."

It took some painfully honest discussions, but they got there.

All open union grievances were resolved during the same negotiations. The grievances essentially centered around two issues: a question of the definition of a full-time versus part-time teacher and the question of payment for a sixth teaching assignment at the high school.

Haapala said teachers are categorized as full-time if they have six assignments, including one "resource hour," or supervisory period like a study hall. However, if teachers have a sixth assignment that requires specific subject licensure, they will be paid a small stipend under the terms of the new agreement.

The contract added pay increases to the different teaching "cells," which are defined by seniority and education level. Although there was no retroactive increase for the 2011-12 year, there will be a $150 (.37 percent) increase in 2012-13; a $250 (.5 percent) increase in 2013-14 and $500 (1.07 percent) increase in 2014-15.

Carlton School Board members approved the contract at their regular meeting April 15. After a slight delay because of snow days, teachers approved the contract April 25. The union vote was 26 to 10.

Of course, not everyone is happy, Therrien said, pointing out the union vote essentially only passed by two votes because a two-thirds majority was required to ratify the contract.


He smiled wryly.

"They say if both people go away from the table feeling like they've been screwed, you've probably done a good job," Therrien said. "There's no doubt, there are some unhappy teachers. But people need to move on."

"It's not a huge increase -- it's what we can afford at this point," Haapala said, referring to the fact that the district only emerged from Statutory Operating Debt this year and is in the black for the first time in several years, an issue Haapala discovered only weeks into the job nearly three years ago.

In fact, the district actually emerged from SOD almost a year earlier than expected, something Haapala said resulted from sacrifices on all sides and lots of community support. With the ratification of the teachers' contract, things are looking up for the once beleaguered school district. Enrollment is up to 469 from 446 a year ago -- "That's huge," Haapala said -- and funds from the seven-year operational levy approved by residents in November 2010 became a factor in the district's budget about a year ago.

Having a teacher contract that extends through June 2015 will help enormously, Haapala said.

"Salary costs [and benefits for all employees] are 80 percent of the total budget, so when you know what those costs are, it helps with planning and knowing what our expenses will be," he said, expressing high hopes that negotiations with the Teamsters' Union (which includes paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers and secretaries) go well later this week.

Therrien said his job as lead negotiator is basically done, but he wants teachers, administrators and other school district staff to build upon the idea of sitting down at the table together for honest discussions and compromise.

"You have to work together to make a school operate," Therrien said. "The [union] leadership has to start directing how members and administrators can work together moving forward."


Haapala is optimistic.

"I think we've reached the point where we can start improving things from this day forth," he said. "And start looking at things that were put on the back burner, curriculum, other issues. It's definitely a lot easier if we're working together."

Most importantly, both men also hope that having a signed contract will allow teachers and administrators to focus on the most important thing.

"We're both interested in supporting the 'teachable moment' rather than being distracted by side issues," Therrien said. "When you allow labor negotiations to go on for two years -- and both sides share blame for that -- you have to ask if you're concentrating on what really matters."

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