OWATONNA — When negotiators for the Owatonna school district and its teachers union sit down on Tuesday for contract talks — the seventh such time they’ve met face-to-face since negotiations began — the main sticking point will be money.

On the one hand, the union contends that more is needed to attract and retain quality teachers. On the other, the district says that too much will put the district in danger of its bank book slipping back into the red.

Teachers in the Owatonna school district are working under contract terms that were began in 2011. That was a two-year deal, ending in June 2013.

Six negotiation sessions and 328 days have passed since talks started between the Owatonna Education Association and district administration on a new deal.

The OEA, which is the teachers’ union, has debated strongly for increases in two main contract areas: overall salary and health insurance. Union president Todd Andrix said that the teachers have helped out the district in the past by taking pay freezes in a depressed economy. Years later, he said he doesn’t want to see teachers fall behind the market.

“We seek a contract that both honors the quality of our senior staff so that they stay here, while also being competitive so the best younger and newer teachers want to come to 761,” Andrix said Friday in an email.

The number 761 refers to the Owatonna school district’s official designation.

The district contingent includes Superintendent Peter Grant and members of the school board. Those administrators are mindful of a budget that they feel is still fragile after years of deep cuts — as much as $4.7 million since 2011. The budget is in the black this year due to the $1.8 million levy, which voters passed in November.

Administrators have said that they are offering contracts that will keep the budget from sliding into the red down the road. Of nine employee groups in the district, seven have agreed to a zero pay increase for the 2013-2014 school year.

But there has been progress.

During the past two negotiation sessions, both sides have come closer to the middle on contract terms, and the feeling is that an agreement is close.

Because the negotiation has lasted so long, the first contract year of the eventual agreement would be the current 2013-2014 year. Therefore, increases would be paid retroactively.

But what exactly are Owatonna teachers making now? And how do their salaries compare to those of administrators in the district?

Here are some numbers.

The main portion of the contract is salary. For all district employees, payroll makes up a vast majority — about 80 percent — of the budget. The district has 332 full-time equivalencies, or that many full-time workers in terms of dollar amounts. That group makes up a large chunk of the payroll budget.

The teacher pay schedule awards different amounts based on experience and education. These factors are called steps (years of experience) and lanes (education level). That means that a pay increase awarded as a percentage would mean different amounts for a given teacher.

As of the last meeting, the district and the OEA have tentatively agreed on a 1-percent increase to overall salaries for the first contract year.

At the lowest level on the pay schedule, the salary is $33,973. That would be a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and less than one year of experience. A 1-percent increase would add $339.73 to the salary.

Data presented by the OEA show the starting salary for Owatonna teachers among the lowest in the Big 9.

On the other end, the highest-paid teacher in the district makes $69,636 per year. About $696 would be added to that salary with a 1-percent increase.

But those raises could actually be more than just 1 percent.

As teachers move up steps and lanes, certain raises are awarded as well. Though the amount varies for each situation, the district determined that a rough average of all increases to steps and lanes is about a 1.8 percent improvement in pay.

Most teachers fall between those two extremes, but the majority — about 60 percent — are near or at the top step. On the lane schedule, the majority of teachers have master’s degrees.

But the teachers are far from being the highest paid in the district.

As a comparison, district principals make roughly between $92,000 and $109,000. The top district administrator — Superintendent Grant — earns $124,000.

Another large contract item is health insurance. The OEA and the district have debated how to deal with a projected 2-percent increase in health insurance premiums. Currently, there are three options for both single and dependent coverage, so increases will affect each situation differently.

As examples, negotiators have used low-deductible plans during sessions. Right now the district covers the premium cost for health insurance, which is about $3,148 for the single coverage plan and $17,000 for the dependent plan.

A 2-percent increase would add about $163 and $340 respectively to each example plan for each teacher. Again, that figure would vary based on which plan a person is on.

Both sides are exploring higher-deductible options to create savings in premium costs.

Other contract items, such as retirement packages, paid leave and compensation for extra activities like coaching have been included in negotiations, but salary and health insurance remain top concerns.

Reach reporter Matt Hudson at 507-444-2372. Follow him on Twitter @OPPMattH

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