WAPS, WEA continue productive, collaborative contract negotiations

Leaders of the Winona Area Public Schools Board of Education and the Winona Education Association said this week that both sides continue to work together in a creative, collaborative fashion toward a contract agreement that is good for the financial stability of the district, rewarding for longtime educators and enticing for prospective teachers. 

WEA lead negotiator Linda Pfeilsticker, a social studies teacher who has been involved in contract negotiations for more than 20 years, said this is the best atmosphere she can remember for negotiations.

“Hands down, this has been the most collaborative negotiations environment we’ve had for a significant amount of time,” Pfeilsticker said.

Nancy Denzer, chair of the school board, said the sessions have been productive since they began in the summer, and they continue to be productive throughout the fall.

The goal, both sides said, is not just to come to an agreement for the sake of an agreement, but one that will benefit the district for years to come. Most of the language is finalized, and the sides are close on minor changes to the salary format.

“We are looking at this as a legacy contract,” said Pfeilsticker, one of several veteran teachers in the district. “There’s a concern from some of our members, that we’re not going to be around here forever. Who will be replacing us? We don’t want the community to lose out. 

“We’ve been able to put highly qualified teachers in front of our students, and our curriculum is a reflection of that quality.”

Both sides hope that the contract will help with recruiting and retaining teachers — a problem throughout Greater Minnesota — by raising entry level salaries so they are more in line with comparable districts around the state. They also hope to improve the benefit package for part-time teachers, roles that are becoming more common in districts around the country as public education evolves.

The contract also needs to be fiscally responsible, not just for the current contract cycle, but into the future, a fact that both sides recognize. Denzer said the board is hopeful to have an agreement in place before it begins the budgeting process for the 2020-2021 school year. 

Both sides lamented the fact that many of the discussions have centered around issues that would easily be solved with adequate state funding, especially when it comes to special education services and increases to the general education formula. The special education cross-subsidy, the amount the district needs to pay to cover unfunded state mandates, was $1,225.26 per pupil in 2017 in WAPS, the fourth-highest amount in the state. 

Teachers have been the backbone of the district since its founding a month before the Civil War in 1861, from those making $20 a month in the Reconstruction Era to the experienced, educated and dedicated workforce of today. Seventy percent of today’s WAPS teachers hold an advanced degree and nearly 90 percent have three or more years of experience — both well above the state average.

“The board has been very supportive and appreciative of the outstanding teachers that we have in this district,” Denzer said. “We have been consistent advocates for making sure our teachers have everything they need to meet the needs of all learners in our community.”