The Winona Education Association (WEA) teachers’ union proposed a salary increase of 2 percent in the first year and 3 percent in the second year of its 2021-2023 contract while negotiating with Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) earlier this month. The increase, including associated benefits, would cost about $1.6 million, according to Finance Director Sarah Slaby. The increase would also be greater than the 0.5 to 1 percent salary raise WAPS budgeted for 2021-2022. 

WEA Head Negotiator Shannon Helgeson said the union chose the proposed increase based on comparable districts’ teaching contracts and WAPS’ current financial health. 

Slaby declined to comment on whether she thinks the district could afford the proposed increase. “That’s very much opinion based, and that would be kind of negotiating in the media, and we’re trying to negotiate with our teachers,” she said. School Board Chair Nancy Denzer also declined to comment on the proposal. 

The proposal is greater than the increase for which WAPS budgeted, but Helgeson said she feels the proposed increase is fair in terms of the district’s most recent budgetary standing, and the budgeted increase is not necessarily realistic. 

The last contract between the WEA and WAPS, for 2019-2021, included slightly smaller increases than the proposal, with an increase of 1 percent in the first year and 2.4 percent in the second year.

Elsewhere in the state, and with groups of slightly different local employees, state mediation resulted in wage increases similar to the WEA proposal. A case settled earlier this year through state mediation services between a city and a law enforcement union included a 2 percent wage increase in 2021 and 2022. Another case earlier this year between a county and a law enforcement union included a 2 percent wage increase in 2020 and 2.25 percent increase in 2021 and 2022. 

If WAPS settles for a larger wage increase than it budgeted for, the district will have to make up the difference somehow — either through increased revenue, spending cuts, or reserve spending.

The WEA also proposed that teachers receive a $1,200 retention stipend for their extra work during the pandemic. “It’s a great opportunity for the district to help support staff morale … During the pandemic, staff morale has sagged at times,” Helgeson said. “I think it would be a really meaningful gesture.” 

Helgeson, Denzer and Slaby agreed that negotiations are progressing well. District representatives have been easy to talk with, Helgeson said. “I feel we understand each other’s priorities,” she said. “I feel we are all trying to row in the same direction … for our teaching staff and students and the whole community.” The conversations have been great, Slaby said. “I think everyone around the table is looking for the same thing, to make this a great place to work and educate kids,” she said. The tone between WAPS and the WEA has been positive, Denzer said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to get there,” she said of arriving at a contract. 

Negotiations are ongoing, and the next meeting will take place on October 28 at 6 p.m. at Winona Senior High School.