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Tentative agreement reached in Crosby-Ironton teachers strike
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Support staff at Crosby-Ironton High School unveiled a sign welcoming teachers back, as both sides announced an agreement to end a two-month long strike. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Teachers and their students headed back to class Thursday morning in the Crosby-Ironton school district. Wednesday marked the end of a two-month long strike by 87 teachers. Negotiators on both sides agreed on a new system of health benefits for retired teachers, a major roadblock in the dispute.

Crosby, Minn. — Students say they're excited to have their old teachers back, and parents say their relieved their children can head back to school. But everyone in the community knows it will take a long time before things get back to normal.

The months of failed negotiations seemed all but forgotten outside of Crosby-Ironton High School Wednesday afternoon. Like kids after a soccer game, each side lined up for congratulatory handshakes.

Negotiators from both sides were ready to announce what everyone in this community has been waiting eight weeks to hear.

"My name is Scott Kile, chair of board of education with the Crosby-Ironton school district. I'm very happy to announce an agreement was reached, and the strike is over!"

The two-month walkout was the longest teacher strike in 20 years in Minnesota.

By late afternoon though, teachers were already back in their rooms, preparing the next day's lessons, and replacement teachers hired on a temporary basis by the district were out of a job.

The agreement that ended the strike came after negotiations the day before. The major sticking point had been the level of health care benefits for retirees.

The stalemate ended when both sides agreed the district should develop a trust fund for retiree health benefits. That's a different approach than the individual accounts both sides have wrangled over. Instead, the district will create a pool of money that can be used by retired teachers to fund their health care premiums.

The union's chief negotiator, Doug Mayfield, says it's a good compromise.

"I think everybody got a fair shake on this deal. A good contract is one were you've got both sides unhappy when it's over, or both sides ecstatic when it's over. If you've got a mix, you don't have a good contract," says Mayfield. "I get the feeling this afternoon that labor and management are pretty happy with this contract overall."

Teachers admit they'll have to make some changes in their approach the rest of the school year. Some say they'll alter their curriculum to cover everything required in the one month they have left in the school year.

The contract requires several makeup days for teachers and students.

Freshman Eric Stuek has a typical teenage reaction to the settlement.

"I want to go back to school, and yet I don't. Because it's fun being out of school, and yet it's boring because you got nothing to do besides sit at home," says Steuck.

But Eric's mom is standing by and says her son didn't really get a free ride at home during the strike.

Debbie Steuck home-schooled Eric and his 17-year-old sister over the past two months. "Pretty much got their books and said, 'You know what you need to do, and do it,'" Steuck says. "It's reading it and trying to figure out yourself, without having someone there to answer the questions. It was just us trying to figure out what they want. It wasn't as simple as you think it is."

Steuck says it won't be simple for the community to move on either. She predicts it'll be divided for years over the two-month strike.

For teachers at Crosby-Ironton, the worries aren't exactly over. A number of students left the district during the strike, and no one is sure how many will come back.

That may impact the district's budget this fall, meaning the possibility that some teachers could be laid off.

Both sides are pleading with students to return to classes at Crosby-Ironton now that the strike is over. They say that's the best way to get things back to normal.