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'Let's get this done': Teachers, district continuing negotiations for new contract

Teachers stand alongside E Point Douglas Road South to the approval of honking passerbys prior to Thursday's District 833 School Board meeting in Cottage Grove. Teachers in District 833 have been working without a contract since July 1, 2017. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Teachers and supports applaud as United Teachers of South Washington County President Marty Fridgen reads a statement to the District 833 School Board Thursday in Cottage Grove. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
Teachers and supporters fillled the School Board chamber during Thursday's District 833 meeting in Cottage Grove. The district teachers have been working without a contract since July 1, 2017. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Teachers and supporters gather outside the District 833 Service Center prior to Thursday's School Board meeting in Cottage Grove. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

COTTAGE GROVE — An overflow crowd of teachers and supporters wore red in solidarity for the United Teachers of South Washington County urging the District 833 School Board to reach a new contract agreement at the board meeting March 15.

"As a team, we say 258 days without a settled contract is too many," UTSWC President Marty Fridgen said during the public comment session of Thursday's School Board meeting. "An unsettled contract leaves a cloud of uncertainty over our district and is a distraction for teachers and administrators."

"Let's get this done," Fridgen concluded, inciting a chorus of applause that spread into the hallway where more supporters gathered, the crowd too large for the chamber's 140-person limit.

Between June and December 2017, UTSWC and District 833 had six bargaining sessions before agreeing to file for mediation. The Feb. 9 mediation session lasted nine hours, yielded no final resolution and ended after the mediator experienced a medical emergency.

"We were feeling really good that we were really starting to make some good progress," said School Board Vice-chair Ron Kath, who has been a part of the negotiations along with School Board Treasurer Katie Schwartz. "We were committed to be there until midnight."

Fridgen said they presented their last proposal at 4:20 p.m. The mediator had his medical event after 7 p.m.

"That kind of tells you where we weren't feeling like we were getting anywhere," Fridgen said. "To their credit, maybe they were ready to present something to us but it didn't feel like that after three hours."

Another mediation session is set for March 20, and both sides are hopeful a resolution will come at that time.

"We want to get it done," Fridgen said. "We're prepared to get it done. I hope they're ready to get it done, too."

Kath shared similar sentiments.

"I can assure you the board is going to do everything we can to come to a resolution on the 20th," Kath said. "We are more than willing to take as many hours as it takes to get this resolved."

Among the chief concerns for the teachers is a salary increase in line with the state's average and averages around the metro. The state's average increase is at 2.2 percent. District 833's proposal before mediation was .75 percent.

Reading a prepared statement that was sometimes met by murmurs and sarcastic laughter from UTSWC supporters, School Board Chair Tracy Brunnette explained that the teachers are still being compensated per their previous deal.

"It is incorrect to state that teachers have been working without a contract," Brunette said. "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."

Brunette also stated the School Board was committed to "reaching a timely and mutually agreeable teachers' contract that provides our employees with fair wages and benefits package, that protects programs and services for our students and that's fiscally responsible for our community."

School Board Director Michelle Witte sympathized with both sides of the negotiation before addressing the district's financial concerns.

"Our fund balance is important because of the bond rating going down. Having gone after the referendums, we've gone almost to the cap now. Those were big, big jumps we made to bring money into the district," Witte said. "The bottom line in our district is we will never compete with west metro or Stillwater or 622 (North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale). I'm sorry about that. We don't have the commercial money. ... We have cut to the bone. And now we have new needs of security and other things.

"We'll disagree at times but I always ask that we work together in collaboration."