A labor negotiation meeting between the St. Helens Education Association and the St. Helens School District was almost derailed before it began Monday evening, when a larger-than-expected union demonstration spilled into school district headquarters and wouldn't budge until police arrived.

When the meeting eventually reconvened at the St. Helens Middle School cafeteria, to accommodate the approximately 60 union protestors on hand, it became clear that both sides were frustrated by the prolonged back-and-forth of the contract talks. 'We're hopeful, but we've been hopeful since the beginning,' said union association president Keith Meuwsen.

Tonya Arnold, a high school language arts teacher and past union negotiator, said this year's series of contract negotiations, which began earlier in the summer, has become as tense as she's ever seen it.

'I think with every meeting we see more frustration, and each side gets more emotional,' she said.

Union leaders and school district negotiators have been unable to come to a compromise on contractual issues ranging from pay increases to the number of furlough days and the percentage of health insurance covered by the school district. The school district currently pays more than 92 percent of its employees' health benefits, but that would decrease under the district's proposal.

Meanwhile, school district officials said union members had failed to present counter offers, which has stalled the process.

District officials told union leaders Monday evening that their goal was to reduce costs so they could bring back more teachers in the future.

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