South Washington County Schools

Teacher Negotiations

April 6 Update 

District 833’s negotiating team is pleased to announce that a tentative agreement for the 2017-19 contract was reached with the United Teachers of South Washington County (UTSWC) on Wednesday, April 4, during a previously scheduled mediation.

At this time, the contents of the agreement are not public. More information will be shared as we are able.

March 15 School Board Chair Statement 

Opening Comments. The School Board and the administration value and respect our hard-working teachers and staff. We recognize they are essential to the work of educating students and to achieving our mission of igniting a passion for life-long learning. The School Board is fully committed to reaching a timely and mutually agreeable teachers’ contract that provides our employees with a fair wage and benefits package, that protects programs and services for our students, and that is fiscally responsible for our community. 

General Process. The District has received a number of questions about the collective bargaining process. District 833 works with eleven different unions to negotiate collective bargaining agreements for its unionized employee groups, including bus drivers, food service employees, paraprofessionals, principals, and teachers, among others. The union for each employee group appoints a bargaining team. The District does the same. The bargaining teams then participate in a number of meetings in an effort to negotiate a new two-year contract.   

Attorney. Some teachers have asked why the School Board’s attorney is on the District’s bargaining team during this round of negotiations with UTSWC. There are three main reasons why the Board decided to have its legal counsel serve as its lead negotiator for this round of bargaining with the teachers:

  1. First, when the parties began negotiating the 2017-2019 collective bargaining agreement, the District was in the process of transitioning to a new Director of Human Resources. The Board’s counsel is experienced in negotiating labor contracts and was willing to assist with that transition. 
  1. Second, during the last round of negotiations with UTSWC, the parties struggled with language items. Both parties were expected to come forward with a significant number of proposed language items during this round. The Board benefits from having its attorney provide advice to its bargaining team on language items. 
  1. Third, and finally, the Board believes that it is prudent to seek the advice of counsel on a contract that currently costs the District a $135 million dollars per year and represents the District’s single largest expenditure. Most would agree that it would be unwise to negotiate a contract of this magnitude without the advice of legal counsel. 

Superintendent Contract. Some community members have asked why the School Board entered into a new contract with its Superintendent, Dr. Keith Jacobus, before entering into a new contract with the teachers bargaining unit. Like every other Superintendent in Minnesota, Dr. Jacobus has an individual fixed-term contract that automatically expires at the end of its stated term. If a superintendent does not have a new contract in place by February 1 of the year in which the old contract expires, it is customary for the superintendent to seek employment elsewhere. Also, the law allows school boards to begin the negotiations process with a superintendent one year before the existing contract expires because, if the parties are unable to agree on a new contract, the school board will need several months to go through a search process in order to find a new superintendent. The South Washington County School Board did not want to go through the expense and uncertainty of that process because it evaluated Dr. Jacobus and found he was “exceeding expectations.”

Not Working Without a Contract. Unlike an individual contract that expires at the end of its stated term, by law a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union continues in effect until the parties successfully negotiate a new agreement. As a result, it is incorrect to state that teachers have been working without a contract. Teachers continue to receive all the pay and benefits in their current contract. Teachers also continue to enjoy all the job security provided under their contract. 

With these protections in place, the law does not allow school districts to begin negotiating with a teachers’ union a full year in advance. Similarly, the UTSWC collective bargaining agreement states: “Unless otherwise mutually agreed, the parties shall not commence negotiations more than 60 calendar days prior to the expiration of this Agreement.” I would also note that when a new agreement is reached with the teachers’ union, the new pay rate in the agreement is often applied retroactively. 

Timing. Contrary to misinformation that has been circulating, the School Board’s bargaining team has worked collaboratively with UTSWC’s bargaining team to schedule dates for bargaining and to move the process forward. In accordance with the contract, UTSWC initiated the bargaining process toward the end of the 2016-2017 school year. During the summer months, UTSWC’s bargaining team had relatively few dates available to meet. However, the parties participated in several negotiations session in the fall. The parties have cancelled only one scheduled session. That cancelation occurred because a member of the District’s bargaining team had an unexpected death in the family. 

Mediation. The parties jointly decided to participate in mediation with a mediator from the Bureau of Mediation Services. The mediator’s services are provided at no cost to the District or the Union. The first mediation session was held on February 9, 2018. The parties were making progress, but after nine hours the mediation ended abruptly because the mediator experienced a medical emergency. The mediator was then unavailable to schedule another mediation for an extended period of time.  The parties are scheduled to resume mediation on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. The Board’s bargaining team looks forward to continuing the mediation process.

Calendar Issues. Not all of the work of reaching an agreement takes place during formal negotiation sessions or during mediation. For example, during a negotiations session on December 11, 2017, UTSWC brought forward a proposal to address the number of non-student contact days that teachers have to prepare for instruction, and the number of days of professional development teachers receive. Although the District was unwilling to accept contract language that would limit the Board’s flexibility in future years, the Administration promptly brought forward a proposal, through the calendar committee, to address UTSWC’s concerns. Union leadership participates on that committee. The Board and the Administration took this action because they want to maintain a professional learning environment that allows our teachers to grow and thrive.

School Readiness Instructors. Some community members have asked questions about why the District is seeking to remove school readiness instructors from the teachers’ bargaining unit. First, school readiness instructors are different from K-12 teachers, early childhood special education teachers, and early childhood family education teachers. School readiness instructors are not required to hold a license. By definition, a “teacher” must be required to hold a license. Second, the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently held that school readiness instructors do not belong in the teachers’ bargaining unit. The District prefers to hire school readiness instructors who are licensed as teachers, but this preference does not bring them in the bargaining unit. Third, whether school readiness instructors will continue to be in the teachers’ bargaining unit is an issue that is now separate from the negotiations process. The District is in the process of filing a unit clarification petition with the Bureau of Mediation Services, which will decide the issue based on the law. 

Financial Considerations.  As part of its duty to a good steward of taxpayer dollars, the School Board establishes financial parameters before each round of negotiations with its employee groups. When establishing financial parameters for negotiations, the School Board relies heavily on its Director of Finance and Operations and considers a variety of factors. For example, the Board considers:

  • the percentage increases that teachers receive in other school districts;
  • the total amount of pay teachers receive in other school districts;
  • the percentage increases that other employee groups have received or will receive in this District;
  • whether the District is experiencing any recruitment or retention issues; and
  • the District’s overall financial condition, including its fund balance and bond rating. 

8.2% Increase Last Round. After weighing these factors, the School Board agreed to an 8.2% two-year total package increase for the teachers during the last round of negotiations. That was one of the higher contract settlements in the state. One of the driving factors behind that increase was the need to raise teacher salaries in our District so they would be competitive with other school districts. Our teachers are now in a competitive position relative to other school districts. 

Good Pay and Benefits. For the 2016-2017 school year, the average salary of a full-time teacher in our District is $66,553 for working 183 days. Additionally, teachers in our District have an excellent benefits package, which includes significant District contributions toward the cost of the premium for single and family health insurance, plus a $3000 annual contribution to each teacher’s VEBA account, which the teacher can then use to pay for any out-of-pocket medical expenses. Full time teachers also receive 15 days of paid absence leave, which they can use for a variety of purposes. If teachers do not use those days, the days can accumulate for use in future years.     

Financial Condition. The District is not in a financial position to enter into a settlement during this round of negotiations that is comparable to the amount of the settlement from the last round. The District’s fund balance is well below the amount established by Board policy, and the District’s bond rating was recently lowered.  This, in turn, increases the District’s borrowing and operating costs. In order to avoid significant cuts to programs and staff, the Board was forced to establish financial parameters for this round of negotiations that are far lower than they were for the last round. 

Closing. It is important for the public to keep in mind that because of the size of the teachers’ contract, a one percent increase represents a cost to the District of more than $1.3 million dollars. This equates to more than 13 full-time teaching positions. Like the public, the Board continues to value reasonable class sizes. While the Board is committed to reaching a timely and mutually agreeable teachers’ contract that continues to provide our teachers with a fair wage and benefits package, the Board is also committed to protecting programs and services for our students and to ensuring that the contract is fiscally responsible.