The Independent Schools District 834 Board of Directors voted 5-2 at its meeting on Feb. 25 to approve the master contract with the St. Croix Education Association. SCEA is the teachers’ union for the Stillwater Area Public Schools district.
The contract covers the period of July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2021.
Under the terms of the contract, the salary schedule was increased by 0% in year one and 4.2% in year two.
The district reached a tentative contract agreement with the help of a mediator from the Bureau of Mediation Services. SCEA and voted to approve the agreement on Feb. 18.
Board member Tina Riehle, who served on the negotiating team, voted against approving the contract.
Riehle voiced frustration over the negotiating process. She said the board members who started negotiations were unfairly blamed for not reaching an agreement sooner as 19 meetings were held before mediation.
“The school board never cancelled a meeting, they showed up,” Riehle said. “The SCEA stopped negotiating in July. I’m frustrated because to me they negotiated because of the election.”
By the 2020 election filing deadline for last year’s election, 16 community members filed to serve for five seats on the board.
Those filings came on the heels of a June 2020 board decision where, in a 5-2 vote, the Stillwater Area Schools Board approved a separation agreement with district superintendent Denise Pontrelli. The separation agreement with Pontrelli cost the district nearly $500,000.
The SCEA endorsed (now board chairwoman) Bev Petrie, Allison Sherman, Matt Onken, Annie Porbeni and Katie Hockert. All five the members endorsed by the union were elected in November and they all voted in favor of the teachers’ contract.
Riehle and board member Liz Weisberg, who also voted against the contract, weren’t up for election as both their terms expire in December 2022.
The cost of Pontrelli’s separation agreement impacted negotiations, board member Sherman said.
“The community, including our staff, sees that,” Sherman said. “And they wonder if (the district has) money to do that, then certainly they have money to at least get us to the state average, which this contract still is slightly below the state average. This was going to go to a bad place.”
The state average for teacher’s contract was 0% salary increase in year one and 4.4% increase in year two.
Sherman added that the prior board set a priority by removing prior administrators instead of settling the teacher’s contract. Sherman noted that ISD 834 was the last district in the state to settle with its teaching staff.
Riehle said other teachers unions in Minnesota were willing to settle for lesser contracts because of the COVID-19 predicament.
“Even though they may not have liked those parameters, they were working for all of us,” Riehle said. “I can’t put my name on these new parameters. I just can’t. When I know we’re going to have cuts coming up next year.”
Weisberg agreed with Riehle saying the district doesn’t have the money to give teachers raises as district enrollment decreases, which could cause the district to make cuts later.
During a budget update earlier in the Feb. 25 meeting, Finance Director John Thein said the district is assuming that it will have a budget shortfall in the next budget season as the district prepares its budget.
Board member Matt Onken said the contract they were voting on predates the pandemic.
“This is rhetorical: But would we all feel the same way had this been negotiated, and voted on near the beginning of the biennium,” he said. “When we had a good economy, 4% at that time would be acceptable. Why wouldn’t it still be acceptable now?”
Weisberg said it’s irresponsible to give teachers a raise now, just to turn around and have to make cuts later. The last contract agreed upon gave the teachers raises and the board later had to cut $2.1 million later.
“I do not want to go through that again, apparently no one else has a problem with it,” Weisberg said.
Onken responded that even though there is a budget currently shortfall forecast, that doesn’t guarantee cuts will be made. He pointed out the district could receive more COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government.
After the district’s meeting was held the US House of Representatives approved a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that is now currently in the Senate for discussion. If passed by the senate it will head to President Joe Biden desk for his signature.
Board Chairwoman Bev Petrie also voted in favor of the agreement. She noted that teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty this year as some are working 70 hours or more a week as they navigate the constant changes created during the pandemic.
“If ever there was a year we need to express our thanks and appreciation for teachers with a contract — that is actually a little bit less than the state average — that this is the year,” Petrie said. “We need to express our thanks to them with a contract that is only fair.”
The Stillwater Gazette has requested a copy of the contract reached with the teacher’s union, and will provide more details on the agreement when it is released.