The Student News Site of Columbia Heights High School

The Heights Herald

The Student News Site of Columbia Heights High School

The Heights Herald

The Student News Site of Columbia Heights High School

The Heights Herald

Contract dispute ends after 200 days

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Peg Nelson
Local #710 gathered together on school grounds to have their voices heard in advance of the evening’s board meeting in February.

Community members within the Columbia Heights Public Schools (CHPS) district might have recently heard that the CHPS teachers’ union Local #710 recently ended a months-long series of negotiations before finally settling on a new contract. However, what was being negotiated and why it took so long to come to a resolution was less obvious than the signs at school board meetings and educators wearing their union t-shirts in solidarity. 

The important roles that unions and their negotiation teams play might seem overlooked by those who don’t actively see or reap the benefits of unions in the educational field. (Full disclosure: The Heights Herald’s advisor, Chris Polley, served on Local #710’s negotiations team this year.) For one, states that have higher union membership rates are linked to higher graduation rates of students, higher test scores from students, teachers getting paid more adequately and teachers feeling more valued throughout their careers and within the school district. Compared to states with lower rates, which can cause pay and working conditions for teachers to be assigned without input from those in the classroom, supporting teachers is one of the most important things unions can do for the education system at large.

“[The union provides] a lot of support—the support teachers need to do their job well,” Columbia Academy teacher Ms. Ariel Orcutt said. “[The negotiations team was]  negotiating on behalf of all of the union and all teachers. That is a huge thing that [the union] does, so we aren’t negotiating [individually] on our own, making it less challenging [for teachers].” 

However, negotiations don’t only benefit teachers but also the district that they serve. The process can help provide oversight of funding allocations while also taking a deeper look at staff perspectives.                                     

“The district’s goal [during negotiations] was to seek to understand multiple perspectives and offer a comparable contract that falls within our financial means,” CHPS Superintendent Zena Stenvik said.                                                                                                                                                                              

During negotiations, there were a plethora of concerns that union members and the chief union negotiator, Columbia Heights High School (CHHS) math teacher Mr. Daniel Honigs, were fighting for. This list includes lower class sizes, more support for English Learner (EL) students and special education students, a true cost-of-living increase in pay for teachers, an increased district contribution towards insurance, adding Early Childhood Family Educators (ECFE) to the salary schedules of other teachers and reintroducing academic counselors back into school buildings. 

Of these concerns, Local #710 members expressed frustration that only some were addressed. Lower class size support was in the final contract, but some union members have since come forth to explain that support only in the form of having a committee to meet quarterly on class sizes doesn’t give any binding towards real changes being made, but a push for better pay did end up somewhat successful with a 2.25% increase in the first year and a 4% increase in the second year towards the teachers’ salary — with senior teachers with 17 or more year of experience receiving a 6% increase in the second year. Another success is adding the ECFE to a better salary schedule (typically, ECFE are paid much less than what other educators are paid despite needing the same requirements and schooling). 

But these successes did come at the expense of other issues not being fully resolved. One such issue left untouched was a more comprehensive system of support for special education and EL students within regular education classrooms and with caseload maximums for EL and special education, along with not reintroducing counselors back into the school buildings — but rather an admission from the School Board that they are needed. 

“[The salary increase] is by all means historic within our district and our union,” Honigs said. “Quite a [few] things were resolved, but quite a few things were left on the table. We will continue to be fighting for [the unachieved negotiations proposals] because there are other school districts that do have class size caps along with ratios of [EL and special education students]. The two most important ones nearest to us are Saint Paul and Fridley.”

Some of the difficulties and key moments during the negotiation process include conflicts regarding the use of funds during the last two years and costs for previously mentioned needs. More specifically, since the district received over $7.5 million in funding brought in by legislators for this year alone, union members questioned the allocation of these funds, as well as why it wasn’t feasible to offer more to CHPS teachers despite other districts having similar support negotiated within contracts.

While there has been more government funding for Minnesota schools, however, there are still expensive aspects of public education districts must adjust to, such as natural increases in costs — otherwise known as inflation. Between a 10.62% increase for the teacher contract, a 20% increase in insurance and transportation costs had an approximately 18%+ rise, the money added up quickly.

The 4% and 2% legislative increase on the education funding formula may have given the impression that Minnesota school districts have more money than they do,” Stenvik said. “It is a real challenge to be forced to have to cut programming and positions when what I want to do is add support and programs for our students.”

Key moments of negotiations include the final choice of going to mediation with a licensed third party assigned by the State of Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services during a January meeting of almost four hours, getting word and community support out through attending board meetings and having non-negotiation-related school district staff members attend negotiation meetings, holding the first school board meeting rally since 2003 and having teachers’ voices heard during said meeting(s).

And, of course, all these final details in the new CHPS teacher contract come at the expense of ongoing disagreements among union members leading to a final yes vote of 64% of Local #710 in favor of the contract to 36% voting no. While still a clear majority, this vote was much more split than any other contract vote in recent memory. The reasons why members voted no vary from feelings of not achieving enough to pushing for sentiments of “the time to fight for everything is now.”

Despite disagreements and difficulties, a few things remain certain for the future within CHPS: everyone can be assured that the teachers and the district are willing to fight for students’ rights toward the best and most equitable education available and the betterment of public education as a systemic whole. 

 

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About the Contributor
Emarie Kusler
Emarie Kusler, Co-Editor-In-Chief
Co-Editor-in-Chief Emarie Kusler is a senior who is returning for her last of four years writing for The Heights Herald. She is often found participating in her school's speech team and loves to engage in debates while pushing her knowledge of the world to the best of her ability. Outside of her efforts in school and extracurriculars, she absolutely loves caring for her pet dog and squirrel, sketching the beauty in the world, reading academic literature and creating her own world of words through poetry. Some of the artists she listens to the most are The Weeknd, Lauryn Hill, and Celine Dion. When she isn't singing along to her favorite music, you can find her re-watching shows like "The Queen's Gambit" and "Bojack Horseman".