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Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

Teacher pact extended as talks continue

By Margie Wuebker

Members of the Minster Teachers Association and interested district residents li. . .

MINSTER - More than 120 people packed a large group meeting room at Minster Middle School on Monday night to voice support for local teachers involved in ongoing contract negotiations and to learn firsthand what effect a highly-publicized federal audit with anticipated findings plays in the bargaining process.
The board of education unanimously approved a memorandum of agreement with the Minster Teachers Association extending the present contract as well as mediation efforts aimed at resolving an impasse until Oct. 31.
Negotiations between representatives of the board and the teachers association commenced March 3, nearly four months before the June 30 expiration date. A federal mediator was brought in during an Aug. 14 negotiating session but no agreement was reached following a lengthy discussion. Both sides are due back at the bargaining table Oct. 2 with the extension preventing any work stoppage or other action prior to the end of the month.
School district resident Diana Seger broached the community school issue during the public participation phase of the meeting, unleashing a flood of comments from board members, teachers and district residents alike.
"I respectfully request that the Minster school board, superintendent, principals and treasurer be bluntly honest with Minster School District members," she said. "The future of our school is at stake - and the ones who will suffer the most are our children who deserve the quality education that Minster used to be known for."
Seger continued, "Please, I beg of you, be honest with us. Give us all the facts. Put aside your pride. Admit a mistake was made so that we - the school and community members - can work together toward a solution."
Superintendent Gayl Ray, as she has done in the past, explained the community school concept established under another administration basically existed on paper rather than being a separate division of the local education system.
Organizers earned grant approval by submitting a list of opportunities community school students would receive, including interaction with college professors, additional computer technology and specialized art classes. According to Ray, students enrolled in the community school were never "pulled out" of regular classrooms for such opportunities.
School officials learned recently the district must repay $57,000 in grant money spent after a designated deadline. However, they are awaiting results of a federal instructional audit conducted in February to see whether Minster will have to repay nearly $329,000 in grant funds received prior to the program's disbanding in 2006. Treasurer Laura Klosterman added the $57,000 figure would be deducted from the estimated amount and the school has requested settlement be made in payments spread over years rather than a lump sum if or when the order is issued.
Ray denied rumors the amount sought runs in the neighborhood of $800,000 or that criminal activity of any sort led to felony charges. She admitted the community school was a source of concern and she contacted an attorney - at no charge to the district -soon after being hired regarding the disbanding. The process, given its complexities, took a year to complete.
Board and negotiating team member Dale Sherman listened intently to comments coming from all parts of the lecture-style room before responding that matters related to the community school issue have no bearing on negotiations which reportedly deal with salary increases and insurance considerations as well as contract wording and duration.
"There are no extra funds available," he said matter-of-factly. "If the balance in the checkbook is zero and we don't have to pay anything back the balance is still zero."
Fellow board member Kurt Forsthoefel added the school board promised voters during a successful half percent income tax campaign one goal would be to establish a carryover of $1.3 million. With monthly expenditures running approximately $600,000 to $700,000, that Midwest Athletic Conference (MAC) schools with enough carryover to run the district 0.64 of a month. The next lowest - Marion Local -is four times higher with enough carryover to operate the district for 2.44 months.
Some people asked whether the board had considered going back to the voters for more income tax, noting rates in neighboring New Bremen and Fort Loramie districts range from 1 to 1.75 percent, respectively. The board has not explored that option as yet, according to Sherman.
He reminded the teachers, all of whom wore red T-shirts in a unified show of support, that many considerations come into play when determining a "fair and equitable" salary package.
"We value our teachers," Sherman stated. "But our offer is based on all factors including the current financial outlook and the state of the economy."
Klosterman pointed out some positives along with the "latest bombshell." A local business, which she declined to reveal, has voiced opposition to its property valuation in a process much like that available to homeowners. The request, which carries an estimated $200,000 hit on district coffers, has been turned down but appeal is likely.
Several people in the audience requested specifics, noting Minster teachers have slipped in terms of salaries across the state.
Sherman replied the Ohio Revised Code prevents either side from divulging specifics involved in the negotiation process. However, he provided information showing teachers received raises of 4.89 percent in 2003, 5.14 percent in 2004, 5.41 percent in 2005, 1.27 in 2006 and .94 percent in 2007 for an average of 3.53 percent.
Teachers quickly responded the previous contract carried no pay raises in either 2006 and 2007, stating they approved the pact in good faith with assurances their cooperation would be remembered. They indicated the raises Sherman provided included step raises which only 60 percent of the district's 58 teachers received.
Sherman said administrators, who are not eligible for step raises, received 3.3 percent in 2003, 3.55 percent in 2004, nothing in 2005 and 2006 and 3.65 percent in 2007 for a 2.1 percent average. When questioned about stipends the administrative staff received during their two-year salary freeze, he explained the figures were not added because they varied from one person to another. The comment drew raised eyebrows and hearty laughter.
Longtime teacher and coach Mike Wiss drew applause when he stated "My team ain't worth shit if everyone doesn't work together" and suggested the time has come to mend some fences.
The board met in executive session to prepare for the next negotiating session.
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