CROSBY --The resounding cheer that followed Crosby-Ironton School Board chair Scott Kile's pronouncement Wednesday that "the strike is over" likely marked the first time opponents in the bitter eight-week-long strike applauded the same statement.
Kile's 3 p.m. Wednesday announcement, made at a news conference with teachers' union leaders in the high school parking lot, marked the culmination of a frantic 24-hour period of negotiations.
The stalemate began to show signs of movement when both sides agreed to meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Ironton City Hall. It was the first time the two sides had met since an impasse was declared by the school board on March 16 when a 17 1/2-hour mediation session the previous day failed to yield an agreement.
Attending the 3 p.m. Tuesday session and representing the school board were Gloria Olsen, the school board's attorney; board vice chair Mary Nelson; and Superintendent Linda Lawrie. Representing the union were Greg Burns of Education Minnesota; Harley Ogata, Education Minnesota's general counsel; and C-I teacher and union negotiator Wendy Gindorff.
Bill Tollefson, the district's business manager, also attended portions of the meeting.
Retiree health benefits (for current teachers) had long been identified as the main sticking point. Kile said at Wednesday's meeting the two sides were fairly close on the other issues. He said negotiations also progressed "with different faces around the table."
Kile said the health savings accounts would give teachers more control of their future and he regretted that negotiators hadn't thought of the idea earlier.
It was at Tuesday's session, which stretched until about 12:15 a.m., that Ogata broached the idea of a Voluntary Employee Benefit Annuity -- a tax-free health savings account for current teachers when they retire. Under the plan, the school district will contribute to a group plan for 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 of district service). The district contribution will be $4,875,000.
Teachers hired after July 1, 2005, will not receive any retiree health insurance benefits.
Negotiating continued Wednesday morning in a session at the school district headquarters that went from about 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Joining the school board representatives for the morning session were board members Kile and Mike Domin and the district's business manager, Tollefson.
Superintendent Lawrie and school board members said the agreement's provisions for retiree health benefits was unique and could serve as a model for other teacher-school board pacts.
"We're stretched financially on this and we've taken a risk," board member Mary Nelson said at Wednesday's 2 p.m. school board meeting in which the board approved both the 2003-05 and 2005-07 teachers' contracts.
Once the elusive retiree health benefit obstacle was overcome and agreement was finalized negotiations moved at breakneck speed. Union officials returned to strike headquarters for a noon meeting with all union members. While teachers were filing into strike headquarters at 1061 First Street S.W. in Crosby to vote to ratify a tentative agreement, union negotiators were holed up in a back room still working on the agreement and calling district officials. Doug Mayfield, chief union negotiator, said the negotiating team "closed the deal" about 12:30 p.m. They emerged from the room and announced a deal had been reached, which was met with loud cheers from awaiting teachers. An hour later, the C-I teachers voted "overwhelmingly" but not unanimously to ratify both the 2003-05 and 2005-07 tentative teachers' agreements, attorney Ogata said. Teachers' union President Stan Nagorski said the vote to ratify was at least two-thirds of the teachers but he declined to give the precise numbers.
Kile said the proposal of retiree health savings accounts was the difference.
"Something unique happened last night," Kile said at the joint news conference. "It was an unusual concept and helped break the logjam."
Board member Domin agreed that retiree health benefits was the key issue. The solution negotiators came up with, he said, was more affordable and "got kids back" in the classrooms. He said the new proposal on retiree health benefits was a "fresh way of looking at it."
Bob Sandin, a C-I School Board member, said the settlement was helped by new ideas that were brought to the table.
"I think everybody got a fair shake on this deal," said the union's chief negotiator, Mayfield.
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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