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Chisago Lakes Schools

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December 4, 2021

10/22/2021 2:07:00 PM
Open mic at C.L. School Board meeting prompts contract debate

Union negotiations were at the forefront of the Chisago Lakes School Board meeting on Thursday, October 14.

The open forum portion of the regular meeting turned in to a bit of a back-and-forth between board chairman Mark Leigh, Superintendent Dean Jennissen and Chisago Lakes High School custodian  Scott Carlson, who felt the district was being heavy handed in negotiations that are now headed to a mediator on Monday, November 8.
“I was disappointed in negotiations,” Carlson led off with. My disappointment at the last meeting was that [board member and negotiation committee member] Dani Strenke glossed over the issue and didn’t flesh it out. She basically stated after two meetings between the district and union, proposals were exchanged and the union requested mediation.

“It makes it sound like we jumped right on board to mediation and that needs to be fleshed out. The public should know the first meeting was a page-by-page reading of document that the district received weeks earlier. We could’ve had meaningful dialogue at that meeting. In the second meeting, there was a lawyer who handed us back our current contract  with a longer probation period of nine months instead of 90 days and a zero percent increase in wages and nothing added to benefits. He basically line itemed out everything we asked for.”

Carlson continued, saying, “I don’t think that was in good faith and we didn’t see any forward progress and that’s why we requested mediation.”

Carlson said he was a teamster for 17 years and had been a part of seven different negotiation committees and he had never seen a company act that way or come face to face with a lawyer.

“As a taxpayer, I wonder why our district is paying money to a lawyer for the basics of the contract,” Carlson said. “It seems high handed and as an intimidation factor.”

Carlson acknowledged the need for a lawyer in the process, but felt it’d be better suited at the end to review details of the contract agreed upon between the union and adminstration.”I thought it silly to have him a part of the process this early.”

Leigh, who said the board typically doesn’t respond to open forum comments, said he was also a part of that negotiating meeting and that he felt surprised by the request for mediation by the newly-formed union.

“It’s a process. I shared that  at the start and during that meeting and I said this is a start,” he explained. “I felt we needed to do significant moving with custodians but the proposal that was offered, we just have to work to get to a point, which requires more sessions, so we were surprised when the union decided to go to mediation services.”

Leigh said he had no problem with mediation, but he felt the first two meetings were just the start between the two sides. “We’re willing to work through that process but now the process has gone to the mediation services and that’s how it’s going to go.”

Carlson responded, by saying, “I look forward to mediation. We need to spell things out better to the public.”

Jennissen then added  some context from the district’s side. “There was an offer brought back with zero increase, however, we knew during board conversation, and Scott you were a part of it, that said very clearly it will not be zero and there would be an increase in percentage.

“The proposal from the union was in excess of 43 percent. And so the conversation was we’d like the union to come back with a more prioritized list of where you want the money because 43 percent was not something the district was going to be able to do.”

Director of Business Services Robyn Vosberg-Torgerson had informed Jennissen that would add about $600,000 to the custodial contract.

“As we talk about that from a taxpayer standpoint, if we are giving out 43 percent raises to a group, I think the public would be questioning that, so it’s hard to come back with a counter from the district when the ask is 43 percent,” Jennissen continued. “We had really good dialogue but I think from the public forum standpoint, it’s important to know that from the board side we had to figure out something that wasn’t going to be 43 percent likely, but something else that’s going to be reasonable that the district can help with.”

Carlson wanted to clarify some of the numbers, saying, “You did talk a lot of percentages, but just to get to a living wage the raise needed to be 26 percent. The percentages don’t look so astronomical.”

“That’s why it’s a process, Scott,” Leigh chimed in. “And, as far as the lawyer being involved, we’ve discussed the fact that this is our first contract with your union, and we thought it was important to have legal representation right form the beginning so we were very clear on the language more than the dollars. That’s putting together the foundation of that contract. The proposal you brought forward was very lengthy and very thorough. We felt the need for the lawyer for that initial contract because what we put in there, we live with for a long time and it’s very hard to take out.”
Negotiations with the teacher’s union Chisago Lakes Education Minnesota have been going smooth, according to board member Lori Berg.

“We’ve met with the teachers three times now and we just got financial proposals. We continue to work together and have meetings in the future and I think things have gone well,” she said. “So far, so good.”

The board voted to add a full time registered nurse to the district staff at a rate of $25 per hour with benefits. Director of Human Resources Darci Krueger-Peckman said the nurses have been requesting help. Not only is there an influx of need for nurses due to COVID and other medical issues. There are also Individualized Education Program students that need specialized nursing help.

This would be a full time RN to assist the other nurses. RN’s can do special paper work and recording that LPN’s can’t do, and that would greatly help.“

The board discussed potentially adding a Communications Specialist. The board’s self-evaluation focused on the need for better communication, and board members have referenced multiple times of marketing the district and sharing the good news around the district. Jennissen explained that the position could be funded 50/50 between the general fund and the Community Education department, as they both have a need for the position. Some comparable district salaries Jennissen noted were between $70-75,000 per year in addition to benefits. “It is something as a board you’ve identified as a need,” Jennissen said.

Berg, Sarah Aadland and Jeff Lindeman all had a bit of trepidation with the resurrection of the position that was eliminated a few years ago in early budget cuts.

None of them disagreed with the need for the position, but they were worried about the optics around it in the current environment.

Berg wondered if the creation of the position could potentially wait until a potential passage of the 2022 referendum.

“We absolutely need this and I believe Michelle needs this, but let’s just say we have a lot of priorites in the district and not a lot of money,” Berg said. She suggested Community Education Director Michelle Kleist could hire a part-time position for Comm Ed and then wait to see on the district side of it for the referendum results. “I can argue both ways on this, but I just don’t know if we can justify it now,” Berg added.

Aadland agreed, saying, “We’re hearing nothing but fatigue from our teachers. It’s hard to put this out there and feel like we’re not prioritizing our teachers. We’re talking with our spending.”

Lindeman added, “I agree with the two of you. We need to take care of the employees we have in a better way. We’ve got big classrooms, we’re not fully staffed. We need the position, but  I do see it as a negative optic because we maybe aren’t taking care of our own like we should. I support the idea of the position as I don’t think you can have too much communication nowadays. I just think the timing of it might be difficult and I’d like to see the money go closer to the students and classroom.”

“At some point,we have to go forward with this,” Leigh said. “We have to be open to the fact that perhaps the general fund could support $25,000. We aren’t doing a good enough job and we know that. We are going to be asking our public on a sizeable levy and we’re hurting on our communications side and we’re not doing a lot of the pieces we should be doing and it’s hurting our district. But I get it, so it sounds like we should just go forward and bring it back to Michelle.”

The board decided to go back to Kleist and Vosberg-Torgerson to see what’s in her budget and see what she can come up with. “I think we’ll have to wait, but we have to recognize her need in that department. There can be a revenue generated in Comm Ed,” board member Brenda Carlson said.

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