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School districts, teachers deep into contract negotiations

"Hard freeze" is the buzz word around the bargaining table for this round of teacher-school board salary negotiations.

A number of school boards in the region are taking the position of a total freeze on compensation packages-including pay, benefits and even "steps and lanes."

"A hard freeze has been our position...meaning everything is frozen at what it is today," said Jim Rieber, who is on the school board's negotiation team, with Dave Schornack and Ron Berns, as they hammer out a two-year contract with Perham Education, the teachers' bargaining unit.

A "soft freeze," on the other hand, would hold the line any negotiated salary increases-but employees would still qualify for increases based on longevity with the district, and if further education-related college credits are earned.

Perham negotiators have filed for mediation, along with a slew of other area Minnesota districts which have enlisted outside help to break stalemates in teacher contract negotiations.

Perham negotiators have been moving steadily, and amicably, forward through six negotiation sessions. The two sides will continue meeting and talking. In Perham's case, the mediation filing wasn't a matter of stalemate, but of planning.

"We're at that point on the timeline where the mediation schedule statewide is starting to fill up," said Rieber. "By filing now, at least we're now on the schedule in case we aren't able to resolve it."

Moorhead, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Pelican Rapids, Frazee-Vergas, Lake Park-Audubon and Fertile-Beltrami have also summoned the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.

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.

Several local districts 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.

Moorhead 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.

For Perham-Dent and Pelican Rapids, requests for mediation services came after voters in both communities turned down pleas for extra money in November referendum votes.

Perham's request for mediation is a precautionary measure, said Rieber. Schools face a $25 fine per pupil, if contracts are not settled by Jan. 15. By filing for mediation now, Perham officials hope to be ahead of that state-imposed deadline if mediation is necessary.

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.

(The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead contributed to this story.)