IRONTON -- "Well, this is it," said Crosby-Ironton School Board Chair Scott Kile as he took a deep breath and glanced around the table at the rest of the board members seated beside him Wednesday at Ironton City Hall.
After nearly two years of negotiations, enduring a two-month teachers' strike and endless hours of board meetings and mediation sessions, the school board Wednesday ratified the 2003-05 and 2005-07 teachers' contracts, officially ending the strike.
Teachers voted overwhelmingly but not unanimously to ratify the tentative agreements for both contracts at about 1:30 p.m., just a half-hour before the school board meeting. Details were being worked out between the union's negotiating team at union headquarters and school district officials on the phone an hour earlier.
The three main sticking points between the union and school district were salary schedule, active health insurance and retiree health insurance benefits. The greatest point of disagreement was retiree health insurance, which previously had been offered for up to nine years to retiring teachers for the past 30 years. However, school officials said the district could no longer afford the benefit. Both Kile and union president Stan Nagorski said a strike would have been averted had it not been for the issue of retiree health insurance.
Crosby-Ironton teachers and their supporters expressed their happiness when board chair Scott Kile announced the strike was over at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the high school.
But Tuesday's late night mediation session between representatives of the teachers' union and board members brought an innovative solution.
School board members credited Harley Ogata, general counsel for Education Minnesota, for the idea of eliminating retiree health insurance benefits and replacing them with a Voluntary Employee Benefit Annuity account, a tax-free group account the district would make contributions to for retiring teachers, much like a health savings account plan. School board attorney Gloria Olsen said the annuity plan has been used for individual teachers in a few school districts but a group VEBA fund is a "different concept."
"This allows us a chance at a future," said board member Mary Nelson. "We've stretched financially on this and we're taking a risk on this."
"I'm just so relieved," said board member Bob Sandin. "Now we can get back to education with the teachers. I'm looking for a healing now and getting back to business."
"I think everybody got a fair shake on this deal," said Doug Mayfield, chief union negotiator.
The district contribution to the fund will be $4,875,000 from 2005-2019. Teachers who qualify to use the tax-free fund will be those who retire after July 1, 2004, and those teachers hired before June 30, 1990, and who, at the time of retirement, are at least 55 and retire after 30 years of service, including 15 years in the district.
Business manager Bill Tollefson said there are 65 teachers who qualify for this annuity fund, including four teachers who retired last fall. Tollefson said the plan establishes a set amount of funds the district can set aside for these retiring teachers and this can now be budgeted, unlike health care costs, which continue to escalate each year.
The district will make equal quarterly contributions each year to this fund, starting July 1. Those contributions, which are tax-free, grow tax-free and are withdrawn tax-free, will be $300,000 for 2005-06; $300,000 for 2006-07; $315,000 for 2007-08; $315,000 for 2007-08; $330,750 for 2008-09; $347,288 for 2009-10; $364,652 for 2010-11; $382,884 for 2011-12; $400,000 for 2012-13; $400,000 for 2013-14; $400,000 for 2014-15; $400,000 for 2015-16; $400,000 for 2016-17; $400,000 for 2017-18; and $134,426 for 2018-19.
Crosby-Ironton school teachers Ann Eberhart, Laurie Pierner, Deb Jensen and Marilyn Sievek embraced Wednesday in the parking lot outside of strike headquarters in Ironton. The teachers voted to ratify a new contract, ending the Crosby-Ironton teacher's strike that began Feb. 9.
Teachers hired between July 1, 1990, and June 30, 1994, will receive a $1,500 per year district contribution to their own personal Minnesota Health Care Savings Plan. Teachers will have to make an annual employee contribution of $250 per year. Tollefson said this will affect 10 C-I teachers.
About 10-12 C-I teachers hired between July 1, 1994, and June 30, 2005, will receive a $1,000 per year district contribution to the state health care savings plan. Contributions will start with the teachers' fourth year of service in the district. Teachers will have to make an annual contribution of $250 per year.
Teachers hired after July 1 won't receive any retiree health insurance benefits.
The total package increase, including wages and benefits for the two two-year contract agreements, is 15.28 percent, or a 9.67 percent wage increase spread out over four years. This includes a 2.5 percent wage and benefit increase, or $136,655, in 2003-04; a 4.5 percent wage and benefit increase, or $250,111, in 2004-05; a 3.62 percent wage and benefit increase, or $201,895, in 2005-06; and a 4.66 percent wage and benefit increase, or $269,335, in 2006-07.
For 2003-04, teachers will receive a 0 percent wage increase with the addition of Step 15 at $400 more than Step 14 and the addition of Step 25 at $800 more than Step 15. The previous highest step was Step 14.
For 2004-05, teachers will receive a 3.27 percent wage increase with a $100 increase at Step 15 and a $300 increase at Step 25.
For 2005-06, teachers will receive a 2.4 percent wage increase with a $200 increase at Step 15 and a $300 increase at Step 25. A 3 percent increase was added to the extra-curricular base.
For 2006-07, teachers will receive a 4 percent wage increase and a 3 percent increase to the extra-curricular base.
Teachers will receive an employer contribution for active health insurance at $7,650 per year from 2003-05 with an increase to $8,200 from 2005-07, effective Sept. 1. Instead of a $100 deductible for active health insurance, there will be a $250 deductible for all employees with the removal of the waiver of deductible and co-pay for accidents. The prescription drug co-pay will be at $15 and $20.
According to the settlement, there will be an additional 10 student instructional days, with two days added this year on May 12 and 13, four days added to the 2005-06 calendar and four days added to the 2006-07 calendar.
Health insurance premiums for the 38 days of the strike will be paid 50 percent by the teachers and 50 percent by the district for those on family insurance coverage and 100 percent by the district for those on single insurance coverage.
The district and teachers' union agreed there would be no reprisal, punishment or action taken by anyone -- including teachers, school employees, students, parents, community members or board members -- as a result or because of participation in the teachers' strike.
Teachers placed by the board this week on unrequested leave will remain in that status until officials know whether enrollment returns to back to normal.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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