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So far, smooth sailing for teacher negotiations

On Sept. 9, 2009, contract negotiations between officials and teachers in the West Fargo School District broke down, resulting in an impasse.

It took more than a month for the two sides to finally agree on a settlement

Two years later, West Fargo School Board members and the West Fargo Education Association have once again returned to the table for the next round of negotiations, but this time things seem to be going much more smoothly.

"The collaborative process has paid dividends," WFEA lead negotiator Aaron Knodel said Wednesday, after the most recent meeting to discuss teacher contracts.

While there are some details that still need to be hashed out - health insurance, in particular - Wednesday's meeting left both sides feeling positive.

"There's a lot of good faith here," School Board President Ben Koppelman said.

One aspect that appeared almost surprisingly satisfactory to officials and teachers alike was that of salary compensation; a sticking point in 2009 that was a large reason for the two sides disagreeing.

Although final numbers will not be official until contracts are signed, by the end of Wednesday's meeting both sides agreed in principle to a compensation plan that had been suggested by WFEA a week earlier.

Negotiations team members were able to successfully create a step salary schedule that met the requirements of WFEA, blending the existing salary schedule with a schedule that guarantees a minimum raise equal to the average "step" increase for experience.

The blended schedules for the first year will address WFEA's concern that individual teachers should receive the salary that benefits them the most. By Year 2 of the contract, all teachers will be under the same step schedule and percentage rate increase.

Based on this most recent proposal, for the 2011-12 schedule, a minimum raise of 1.72 percent will be assured. The maximum raise a teacher could receive is 2.86 percent, with the average raise being 2.06 percent.

In 2012-13, however, teachers would see a combined raise of 3.65 percent, of which 2 percent will go directly toward the required increase in the Teachers' Fund for Retirement, as mandated by a law passed by the State Legislature last spring.

But one highlight, in particular, made the salary compensation stand out. In 2011-12, a starting teacher is expected to earn $34,942, including TFFR. By the following year, however, that amount jumps to $36,306, which is higher than the starting salary of teachers working in the Fargo School District as currently agreed upon by their contract negotiations.

"We have to ask ourselves if this still is an attractive salary for new employees," Knodel said. And considering the second year of the contract would be hundreds of dollars higher than Fargo Public Schools, the WFEA members largely agreed it was.

Knodel said WFEA's biggest concerns were for recruitment and retaining teachers, and whether benefiting one might hurt the other.

Salaries and compensation will be touched on again during tonight's negotiation meeting.

Also Wednesday, WFEA and school board members agreed upon adding language to the contract to add an Advisory Communications Committee. Superintendent David Flowers wrote the proposal, which lays out guidelines for the group.

The committee will meet a minimum of three times a school year, but has the option to gather more frequently, if necessary. The school board president, superintendent and WFEA president will collaborate to determine the exact makeup of the group, but it must consist of individuals from all employee classifications.

This is not the first time a communications committee has been attempted in WFPS, but Knodel said the outline will help point the new group in the right direction.

"No one knew what we were doing" in the last committee, he said. "This, at least, tells us what we are supposed to do."

Health insurance was the only topic that required more discussion after Wednesday's meeting. Trying to get an idea of a new model to base theirs off of, Human Resources Director Robin Hill brought forward the Fargo District's negotiated agreement on health insurance.

It is a topic that West Fargo teachers feel very strongly about, Knodel said.

"We are willing to not have a larger increase in salary in order to keep insurance as it is," he said.

According to Knodel, the sticking point is that the contract currently indicates the precise plan that WFPS must offer.

"We are discussing language that allows our insurance committee the latitude to make alterations to the plan, in order to reap some cost savings," he said. "Currently, that committee is restricted by the language in the contract, and therefore is not able to even suggest a course of action to any group outside of the negotiations table.

"This means that the plan can only be changed through negotiations, even if costs changed in the interim."

And while there still is much work to be done in reaching a common goal between WFEA and the school board, Knodel said the collaboration has come a long way and the end is in sight.

"It's the avalanche idea: there were a lot of snowflakes to get to this point," he said.