DEERWOOD -- For the first time since the Crosby-Ironton teachers' strike began nearly eight weeks ago, the C-I School Board held a special meeting Monday to listen to residents' comments, suggestions and questions about the strike.
More than 500 people gathered at the Deerwood Auditorium Monday night as board members spent about an hour and 15 minutes listening to public comments about the strike. Board chair Scott Kile said board members would address questions asked by residents in a column published in the next edition of the Crosby-Ironton Courier, the community's weekly newspaper. No other board members spoke at Monday's meeting.
Many attendees later described Monday's meeting as "respectful," as people took turns at the microphone addressing the board.
The Crosby-Ironton School Board met Monday at the Deerwood Auditorium to listen to residents as they offered their opinions, suggestions and questions about the nearly eight-week-old teachers' strike. An estimated 500-550 people attended the first public board meeting held since the strike began Feb. 9.
Opinions expressed at Monday's meeting varied, as some community members thanked the board for standing firm during negotiations with the teachers' union and hiring replacement teachers while others asked the board to negotiate a compromised settlement to end the 49-day-old strike.
John Davis, a former C-I board member, urged the board to keep negotiations open with the teachers' union by meeting on a daily basis, even if it's only one or two board members who can attend these daily meetings.
"There's a wide gap of canyon-sized proportions and we need to do everything we can to narrow this gap," said Davis.
Jill Gundry, Crosby, said she researched the Red Wing teachers' strike two years ago and learned that after the strike was settled, eight teachers were cut because of the financial losses the district incurred during the strike.
"It saddens me to know the teachers are picketing themselves out of their own jobs," said Gundry.
Charles Barnum, a Crosby attorney with two children enrolled in the district, told the board the main stumbling block in negotiations appeared to him to be the issue of retiree health insurance, which he said teachers have been promised since the early 1970s in previously negotiated contracts. Other issues, such as active health insurance and wage increases, appeared to be relatively close on both sides, he said.
"It's a moral issue," said Barnum, on why he felt the district should not take away this benefit from striking teachers. "The (previous) school boards promised them. They enticed them to stay in the school district to teach."
Striking Crosby-Ironton teachers Jean Callisto (left) and Sue Tesdahl carried a sign Monday remembering Neva Rogers, a teacher killed at Red Lake High School last week.
Chuck Hagberg thanked the board for taking back their authority from "the militant unions."
"I believe many of us are sick of the union's strong-armed tactics," said Hagberg.
Joe Stanich, Deerwood, said he was optimistic there could be a settlement to end the strike and begin the healing process in the community. He asked that everyone, including himself, stop blaming others for the strike and do everything they can to help both sides reach a settlement. Stanich also urged the board to return to the negotiating table.
"I know we can do it," said Stanich. "This community is worth it."
Mark Bill, a C-I parent, told board members they need to keep the community informed.
"The community here needs to know the accurate information," said Bill. "How much money we've wasted by not settling with the teachers."
Jim Kirzeder, a C-I parent, told the board that the entire community, including the board, Superintendent Linda Lawrie and teachers, have been hurt by the strike. But most of all, Kirzeder said, the students are hurting because of the strike.
"It's time for a settlement to get the children and the teachers back in school and begin the healing process," said Kirzeder.
Michael Thielen, a C-I parent, said he believed the board's offer is fair and what the striking teachers are asking for is more than what the district can afford. Thielen said he's supportive of the board and his child is happy with his replacement teacher.
Cinde Tomson, a C-I school employee, told the board that the replacement teachers were unqualified and accused some of falling asleep in the classroom and embarrassing special education students. Kile stopped Tomson from speaking, telling her she was making slanderous comments.
"Are the kids really getting an education we want to give them?" Tomson asked him.
Theresa Fisher, a C-I parent with three children in the district, said her children miss their regular teachers but her children are happy to be in school with replacement teachers.
"My first-grader comes home with a smile every day," said Fisher. "You guys need to stand firm. We stand behind whatever you decide."
Bonnie Van Santen, a retired schoolteacher and board member, said she believed it was the board's role to clear up rumors in the community that are contributing to angry sentiments about the strike. She asked board members about whether the board was giving replacement teachers a housing allowance, in addition to their $300-a-day wage, and asked about surveillance equipment that may have been installed at the schools.
"To me, the role of the school board is to simply and clearly define what the numbers are and not leave that up to other groups," said Van Santen, referring to recent newspaper ads placed in area newspapers. "Let's get the facts. ... Telling all will go a long way to healing the anger and dissent in this community."
Carl Larson, a Perry Lake Township farmer who recently parked a load of manure next to the striking teachers' picket lines to express his displeasure over the strike, thanked the board for the extra work they've had to do during the strike.
"I'm finally glad we've got a board that will take a stand and I know the taxpayers really appreciate it," said Larson.
"I would ask you to meet with the teachers and just talk," said Brad Johnson, a C-I parent. "Nothing is going to get settled until you just meet with these people and just talk."
Kim Duffney, Crosby, said she believed binding arbitration was a sensible solution for resolving the strike. Many people, including Duffney, wore stickers in support of binding arbitration at Monday's meeting.
Bill Bedard, a C-I parent, criticized Education Minnesota for being "an outside force that has stirred the pot in this community."
About 50 of the 87 striking C-I teachers attended Monday's meeting but none spoke at the event, said Nicki Jacobs, a C-I teacher and member of the union's negotiating team.
Jacobs said it appeared to be a respectful meeting.
"It was more information gathering," said Jacobs, of the meeting. "I'm hoping the pleas for us to meet won't fall on deaf ears. We need to meet."
Kile said he was happy with the meeting's turnout but was surprised that more people didn't sign up to speak.
He said the message he heard was that people wanted a settlement. He also noted people urged the school board to remain firm in its stance toward the union.
"They're getting weary," he said of the district residents who addressed the board.
Although no negotiations are scheduled with the teachers, Kile said he repeated what he's been telling people throughout the strike.
"Keep the faith," he said.
Lawrie was pleased with the number of people who turned out to support the district's children. She noted the calls for the district to be fiscally responsible.
A contract settlement was the best outcome for all involved, she said.
"It's very difficult," she said of the strike. "It's way too long."
"I feel the meeting helped and by the board doing this is taking things in the right direction," said Gail Gustafson, a C-I parent who recently helped organize previous community meetings. "I thought it was good and I thought it was kept in line."
The school board will meet again at 7 p.m. next Monday for a regular board meeting at the Deerwood Auditorium. The meeting will be open to the public.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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