Little controversy ensued as the St. Louis Park School District and the Park Association of Teachers negotiated a two-year contract.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know what was going on because there was not a single ripple or issue or concern,” Boardmember Karen Waters said before the St. Louis Park School Board unanimously approved the agreement Sept. 23. “I mean, it just got done.”

Superintendent Astein Osei credited the relationship district administrators have with the teachers’ union for creating a smooth process despite challenging topics the two sides discussed.

“We worked through some issues that without the relationship that we’ve developed over the years could have proven to be difficult,” Osei said.

A key issue included the negotiation of a new process that the district will use when laying off a teacher or placing the employee on unrequested leave.

The Minnesota State Legislature and former Gov. Mark Dayton approved a legal change in 2017 that does not make seniority-based layoffs automatic in state law but rather requires each school district to negotiate with unions about how to conduct layoffs. Despite the state law change, seniority can be a main factor in the local contracts.

“I have to say that I am most impressed that while (the Park Association of Teachers) obviously protects teacher rights, both the teachers and the district negotiations teams kept students and student outcomes in the conversation, and they created this new process that allows us to keep the best teachers in front of our students in the event a layoff would be needed in the future,” Osei said.

The new contract states that the school board may place teachers on unrequested leave of absence “as may be necessary because of discontinuance of position, lack of pupils, financial limitations, or merger of classes” for up to three years, after which the teacher would lose the right to reinstatement.

The process states that the district may not hire a new teacher while any qualified teacher in the same field and subject matter is on unrequested leave. Rather, it states that the qualified teacher will be reinstated as such positions become available.

The contract outlines notification procedures as well as the teacher’s right to a hearing with the superintendent or a designee and representatives of the union if the district plans to recommend that the school board place the teacher on unrequested leave. If the union does not agree with the district that the process had been correctly followed, the contract requires the district to call a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The district would typically have to designate teachers with the least seniority in the field and subject matter for unrequested leave except in cases when another teacher in the same area is on a teacher improvement plan or if a teacher is qualified to teach advanced placement courses and other specialized courses or is a teacher on special assignment. Another exception is provided “if the operation of the seniority provisions would significantly impair the effectiveness of the educational program.”

Other provisions state that the section on unrequested leave would not apply if it would result in a violation of the district’s affirmative action program and that teachers placed on leave could work elsewhere without losing credit for their years of service and may be eligible for re-employment insurance.

Salary increases

Osei said district and union negotiators also collaboratively discussed salaries.

“In some negotiations, the focus is too often predominantly on the top steps salaries,” Osei said about system that rewards teachers for longevity and education levels. “In this agreement, both the teachers and district saw the need to have competitive salaries at the entry steps to attract and retain staff, and a bigger portion of the salary improvement went to those beginning steps by using a constant dollar across the schedule. This resulted in a schedule that will help the district with our efforts to attract and retain the best teachers.”

The new contract will increase the pay for teachers in all steps by $1,000 with a 0.5% additional increase for teachers at certain levels for the district’s 2019-20 fiscal year. The pay will be retroactive to last July – the period in which the new two-year contract officially begins.

In the second year of the contract, teachers at all levels will gain $1,100 with another 0.5% increase for teachers at certain levels.

The contract includes slight increases in the district’s contribution to health insurance plans. For example, the district’s monthly contribution to a standard plan for a single employee will increase from $450 per month last year to $465 per month this year and $480 per month next year. The district’s contribution to dental coverage for single employees remains at $52 per month and will increase from $90 to $95 per month for family coverage.

“Overall, we are very pleased with this new contract,” Osei said.

He added that the settlement is within the district’s budgeted projections and indicated that the salary increases are not as large as the last two-year contract.

Director of Business Services Patricia Magnuson echoed Osei’s comments about the importance of the relationship between administrators, such as Director of Human Resources Richard Kreyer and union negotiators.

Magnuson said, “While there’s respect and collegiality, these are tough, difficult conversations and tough negotiations, but this teacher leadership team certainly keeps students at the center. It was evident in all of the conversations, and they were really respectful of our financial position and interested in our financial position. I think the settlement reflects that understanding of our financial positions.”

Waters also praised Kreyer for his diligence, noting that he has corrected typos that had been in past contracts. She added that he also created logical consistencies in district contracts.

“Why did we have 14 different dental plans?” Waters said. “Seriously ... he’s just fixed a lot of stuff. And when you take care of those little things, it showed everybody, wow, he really cares about getting this right.”

Board Chair Nancy Gores concurred with the speakers.

“It’s collaborative work, and it’s work at its best with students at the center,” she said. “That’s why we’re all here.”

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