The new contract for teachers in Edina includes a rare perk that could make them the envy of colleagues across the state: paid time off for those who are prolific at writing college recommendation letters.

Compensating teachers for their time spent writing 12 or more recommendation letters for students applying to college has been standard practice in the Edina public schools for years, district officials say.

It wasn't until this spring, however, that it became a part of the teachers' contract: up to two days off, depending on how many letters are written.

As competition for admission into the best colleges heats up, so has demand for sterling endorsements from teachers. That creates more work for teachers everywhere to ensure their students get a shot at top colleges.

That situation is compounded in Edina, teachers and school leaders say, because many students apply to multiple schools.

"Teachers of juniors can write 40, 50, 60 recommendations," said Van Anderson, an English teacher at Edina High School and president of Education Minnesota/Edina, the local union. "I mean, it's a lot."

Students applying to the country's elite colleges and universities need a letter that's tailored to that particular school, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

"A teacher can't say, 'Here's a letter, send it in to five places,'" he said. "If you're applying to Harvard or Yale, you have to have a top-notch letter of recommendation."

He said he hasn't heard of another district with a provision like Edina's in its teachers contract. Nor have the folks at Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

It surfaced during contract negotiations this year, when teachers' claims of increased workloads were among the main reasons they and district leaders were at an impasse for so long.

Contract makes it a benefit

Edina was one of the last metro area districts to settle its teachers contract, losing $220,000 in state funding after missing the Jan. 15 state deadline.

Teachers rejected two contract offers before accepting one in March that included language that compensates teachers for taking time to write the all-important letters of recommendation.

"That's one of the reasons teachers felt the district was recognizing the need for workload issues," Anderson said.

The contract comps teachers one day for a minimum of 12 students who request college recommendations. The maximum time off granted, no matter how many letters a teacher writes, is two days per school year.

"Putting it in the contract makes it a benefit for teachers that's contractual, not just a matter of board policy," Anderson said.

In recent years, the practice fell under the school board's jurisdiction. Boards can change and policies can change, but a contract can change only through negotiation.

Gwen Jackson, director of human resources for Edina public schools, said before the college recommendations item was added to the contract, teachers had to find out about the time-off perk through word of mouth or memos.

"We're trying to be more transparent," Jackson said.

Crafting a winning letter takes time, Anderson said. It also takes care.

"Teachers certainly take them seriously, because they want to reflect as accurately and positively on their students' performance as they can," he said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488