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Contract Negotiations, Working Conditions and Student Test Scores

This article needs to start with a correction and an apology. In last week’s edition of the Journal, I wrote that the Lake Superior School District (LSSD) has a discretionary fund of 3 million dollars. It would be nice if that were true, but it is not! Finances are discussed reg­ularly at school board meetings and I believe that I conflated that figure with funds that the District has set aside as a reserve fund. I apologize for this error and any confusion it has caused. According to District Superintendent Jay Belcastro, the LSSD does have a reserve fund, as is recommended for each school dis­trict by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA). The MASA has instructed school districts to have 3 months worth of capital on hand so that they can cov­er payroll in the event that the State, for some reason, is not able to cover its financial obli­gations to the districts. The LSSD has wisely complied with this directive.

A couple of teachers that I spoke with did say that there are some who would like the district to use some of the money from this fund for salary increases. At present, I do not have accurate numbers for the reserve fund or for the amount it would take to give teach­ers the raise they have asked for and deserve.

Negotiations are ongoing and Balcastro and union representatives have both mentioned the respectful nature of the relationship be­tween the two parties. There are, however, some sticking points that remain on how to cover teacher pay raises.

As LSSD teachers and administration work toward a solution, it is important to point out a few factors that play into the challenges that district teachers, students, and administrators are facing at this time.

According to MPR News, the State current­ly spends $6,863 for every student enrolled in Minnesota public schools. The LSSD Dis­trict has seen a decrease in students since the pandemic, leading to a decrease in per pupil funding from previous years.

LSSD teachers have been contracted to teach four days per week. Those days are ex­tended so that the number of student contact hours is commensurate with what teachers would work in a more typical five-day week. That being said, it is also important to point out that the typical teacher is likely to put in at least a day’s worth of work on the week­end. That is usually what the job requires.

With the current substitute shortage, teach­ers are often having to give up their planning period to cover for other colleagues who are absent. According to Superintendent Balcas­tro, “That is happening more than we would like.” The District offers a wage of $150 a day to substitutes, which is competitive with what is offered in other nearby districts, but substitute teachers are still hard to come by. When teachers are asked to step in to cover for their absent colleagues, they do receive compensation but the loss of a planning peri­od affects both teachers and students.

Chris Williams, Press Secretary for Edu­cation Minnesota, spoke about a number of factors that are impacting teachers’ working conditions and student learning outcomes. In some districts, the teacher shortage has led to increased class sizes. Though LSSD teach­ers have said they are not presently seeing a marked increase in class sizes, that possibility exists as the District struggles with teacher and substitute shortages and budget constraints. Research has shown that reducing class size is one of the most effective ways to increase learning outcomes for students. According to numerous studies, the benefits of smaller class sizes include coursework that is able to be adapted to more accurately fit the learning styles of students, learning activities that are more hands-on, increased direct instruction and feedback from teachers, greater oppor­tunities to learn from peers, and increased in­centives for students to be actively engaged in classroom activities.

Supporting students and supporting teach­ers go hand in hand. I am told that there will be another rally in support of teachers in Two Harbors on March 8th, whose location is yet to be an­nounced. Representative Natalie Zeleznikar and Senator Grant Hauschild have apparently both committed to being there.

Rick Evans
Rick Evans
My wife, Marsha Kinzer (a proud DEHS Greyhound, class of ‘77) introduced me to the North Shore on vacation in 2012. It became our regular escape when the stress of our careers in education became overwhelming, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the breathtaking scenery, the nice people, and “salad” containing Jell-o and marshmallows. So you can either blame or thank my loving wife for my being here, because when we needed to choose a retirement hometown, Marsha advocated hard for her beloved Duluth, and here we are, six months later. Yes, this will be my first northern Minnesota winter. Yes, I welcome thoughts and prayers. Government, public policy, and social justice weighed heavily in the curriculums I taught at the high school level over a thirty-eight year career. In addition, we were a laboratory school focused on critical thinking in conjunction with technical and scientific writing. So when I found myself adrift on the great ocean of retirement and spied a raft, I jumped at the chance to take up what I’d left behind…minus the bad teachers’ lounge coffee. My position at the NSJ allows me to combine my passions for government and writing, and it’s helping me to feel less out of touch in new surroundings. When I’m not being “Cubby” (Marsha’s favorite new nickname for this green reporter) I enjoy pointing at eagles and saying, “Look, honey. There’s an eagle.” I’ve had an active side hustle as a professional musician for almost as many years as Charlie Parr. As a guitarist/singer/songwriter, I graced the stages of clubs and festivals around southern Wisconsin, including an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. Should I even mention A Prairie Home Companion, or am I the only one here old enough to remember what that is? Look! An eagle!
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