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Mitchell School District's teachers take pay decrease of $1,000

The Mitchell Board of Education gave rapid approval Monday to a one-year negotiated agreement that will, among other provisions, cut the salary of the district's 200 teachers by $1,000 each.

The cuts will save the district $217,164 next year, said Superintendent Joe Graves, an amount that represents the salary cuts as well as payments to Social Security and the teachers' retirement system.

The board voted 4-0 for the contract, with board member Eric Christensen abstaining, since his wife is a teacher in the district.

Board President Brenda Freidel thanked the Mitchell Education Association negotiating team for its work on behalf of the teachers.

"Negotiations were not easy," she said. "We're in tough times."

District administrative personnel will also receive similar cuts, Graves said, but the precise percentages of those cuts and their amounts have not been determined.

Rather than drain district reserves and not make the salary cuts, Graves said the district made cuts from broad areas.

"We tried to do a combination of things," he said. "We had some cuts in personnel, some cuts in compensation; we increased the opt-out (from $200,000 to $400,000), and we used some reserves. Across the board, somebody felt the pain in one way or the other."

The decision to take the cuts out of salaries was made by the teachers themselves.

"The board's initial proposal was to take the money out of insurance and not take it all out of salary," MEA Chief Negotiator Curtis Smith said, but the feedback from MEA membership was to let salaries, and not benefits, take the biggest hit.

"We thought it was more equitable to take it out of salary rather than have those that depend on family and individual insurance shoulder the main part of the burden."

The teachers opted to take the salary hit and maintain insurance at current levels. They also agreed to pay a scheduled 6 percent increase in health, and a 10 percent increase in dental, insurance premiums.

"It's a tough thing for morale," MEA President Darrel Anderson said. "Nobody wants to take a pay cut."

But teachers also understood that there was a need for some cuts.

The question among MEA membership is: "How bad can it get?" Anderson said.

"We're just hoping there aren't more cuts coming. What more can they take away? We're taking the meat off the bone right now. We're just hoping we can maintain where we are, and hopefully move in the other direction."

The salary cut will be felt most keenly by those teachers at the lower end of the salary scale. A $1,000 cut for a teacher earning $30,000 a year means a 3.33 percent cut in salary, whereas a teacher getting $50,000 will get a 2 percent cut.

Anderson said the teachers decided a salary cut would be more equitable, since not all teachers receive district benefits.

He said the insurance cuts would have been "devastating" for teachers.

An MEA release handed out after the meeting said the district brought 15 items to the bargaining table and the teachers brought three items. The final agreement was made though "sidebar" e-mail negotiations between the MEA and the board.

"In addition to being willing to help the district meet their financial woes," read the release, "the MEA was also willing to agree to a March 15 contract offer (formerly, contracts were issued April 15); eliminating the initial salary grid; eliminating MEA Association and president leave; eliminating extra pay for distance learning; eliminating National Board Certification pay; shortening the period of recall rights for those who experienced a reduction in force; and was also willing to allow the district to reopen talk on health insurance because of any change in the law or interpretation of the law."

The MEA also allowed the board to impose language that will allow no planning time under the contract for teachers in art, music, and physical education.

It also allowed the assignment of locker room supervision to teachers during noninstruction time, without additional compensation.

The MEA refused to accept a salary cap for school counselors or extra days of work without pay for the counselors, or for teachers to be required to teach extra classes without pay.

The board agreed, among other things, to delete a proposal that would have set up a four-point evaluation proposal for teacher merit pay.

The one-year agreement was reached Tuesday night via e-mail communications between both parties, Smith said.

The districts and the teachers had been at an impasse and were scheduled for an Aug. 24 mediation session with the state Department of Labor. That meeting was reset to Oct. 13 by the DOL.

The MEA and the board decided to meet Aug. 24 anyway.

According to Smith, they were unable to hammer out their differences, but that meeting formed the basis for the agreement that was reached last week.

The MEA was unwilling to consider any agreement longer than a year, Smith said, because of the uncertain nature of state education funding.

The agreement must be approved by the MEA membership before it becomes official, he said.

Equalization board

In other business, Deputy State's Attorney Jim Taylor explained to board members a proposal for a consolidated Board of Equalization that is currently under consideration by the Davison County Commissioners and the Mitchell City Council.

The board, he said, would eliminate a step for taxpayers who wish to protest their taxes. Under the current system, residents must first appeal to township or town boards of equalization and then to the county board of equalization.

A consolidated board would aim to eliminate confusion and streamline the process.

"It would be one-stop shopping for aggrieved taxpayers," he said.

He asked the board to consider being part of a consolidated board. The majority of those on a board would be the county commissioners. A Mitchell school board member would only vote on those properties within the school district boundaries, Taylor said.

The board will vote on the consolidation proposal at its Oct. 10 meeting.

Other business

In other business Monday, the board:

• Approved, at the request of Mitchell Technical Institute President Greg Von Wald, nearly $156,000 in change order charges for construction projects. The changes reflect quality upgrades made possible by lower than expected bids for work on the Campus Center building.

• Heard a presentation by Hanson County resident Bernie Kayser, who asked for board support in opposing a proposed Hanson County dairy farm that would bring about 70 employees into the area. Kayser claimed the project will bring more liabilities than benefits to Hanson County. Board President Freidel thanked Kayser for his input.

• Approved the following personnel items:

Resignation: Kim Strehlow, food service, Longfellow Elementary, effective Sept. 15.

Transfers: Dawn Swenson, paraeducator/special education, plus half-time educational assistant, effective Sept. 6.; Sherrie Wermers, from splitshift custodian at Mitchell High to day shift and laundry at the high school.

New hires: Laura Hora, paraeducator, GBR, six hours daily at $10.82 an hour; Chris Downs, farm and business management instructor, MTI, $45,000; William Walters, farm and business management instructor, MTI, $45,000, all effective Sept 6.

Fall adjunct faculty, MTI: Dustin Sperlich, CIS 105 technology, $4,590; Ron Vanderheiden, BC 282 welding, $2,640; and Julie Hart Schutte, psychology 105, $1,530.

Volunteers, MTI: Tanner Lolley; Dalton Hump, $1, as rodeo drivers.