Teachers, school staff and concerned community members flooded the Homer High School Mariner Theater with red on Monday as they attended a meeting of the school board for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
The school board holds one meeting in Homer and one meeting in Seward each year, but Homer area teachers and staff weren’t alone at this meeting. Several educators from the central Kenai Peninsula had ridden a bus down to Homer to also attend the meeting, where many of them addressed the board regarding their ongoing contract negotiations with the school district. They wore red, the color used nationally to show support for teachers.
Many people who stepped up during the public comment periods urged the school board to “approve” or “ratify” a contract proposal the commenters said was before the board. However, there was no action item on that meeting’s agenda having to do with the most recent contract proposal made by the associations representing teachers and support staff at the last negotiations meeting on Sept. 5. The board did not have anything to approve or ratify.
The school board can only approve a contract for teachers when a tentative agreement has been reached between the district and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association. That tentative agreement is what goes to the school board for ratification. There is currently no tentative agreement between the district and the associations.
The two sides are set to return to negotiations at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Soldotna High School.
The district’s cost analysis of the associations’ latest offer showed the cost of salary and heath insurance would require using the district’s entire unassigned general fund balance of $3.9 million, and require additional funding, the Peninsula Clarion reported. Director of Communications Pegge Erkeneff said in an email that this is “more than the school board authorized to reach agreement.”
Saul Friedman, an Anchorage-based attorney working with the district bargaining team, told the association representatives during the Sept. 5 negotiation meeting that their proposal would require the spending of funds that the school board would have to approve.
“Your proposal requires the use of both unassigned and committed fund balance,” he can be heard telling the associations in a Facebook live video of the meeting, posted on the KPEA Facebook page. “(The) decision to use both of those is solely within the province of the school board. This team does not have the ability or the authority to make that decision.”
The school board did review the latest contract proposal from the associations during an executive session on Monday morning before the main meeting. During the main meeting, Board President Penny Vadla said the school board “provided direction to the administration at that time.” She declined to comment further after the meeting.
Though the school board did not have a contract to approve at its meeting, it heard from myriad teachers, support staff, students and community members who urged the board to use whatever power it has to help settle on a fair contract for teachers. For the last several rounds of contract negotiations, the cost of health care has been the major sticking point.
Several people commented during Monday’s board meeting that the current model for health care is not working for many teachers. Others said that health care costs more for employees in this school district than it does for employees in the Mat-Su Valley or other comparable districts.
A handful of commenters also said that either they or other teachers they know struggle to make ends meet because the employee contribution to their health care plan is so high. Teachers talked about fellow colleagues who work second and third jobs in order to have enough money for themselves and their families.
During an update to the school board, Superintendent John O’Brien said that Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones has been working with the borough to negotiate with local hospitals on the discount rates it gives to the school district in order to save more money on that front.
“Central Peninsula Hospital is agreeing to increase the provider or the physician discount from its current rate of 7% to 25%,” he told the board.
CPH is also increasing its discount rate for district employees from 25% to 30%. O’Brien said negotiations are still ongoing with South Peninsula Hospital, where the district receives “a much smaller discount.”
“We are asking that administration to provide the exact same discount to our employees that Central Peninsula Hospital is providing,” he said.
Also at the meeting, Superintendent John O’Brien apologized for a letter he sent out to parents that was intended to ask them to start preparing in the event that the teachers strike. If a strike does happen, the associations have to give the school district 72 hours notice. All school functions and school-related events would cease to operate.
A few people at the meeting commented that they were offended by the letter, saying it painted the teachers as an enemy and that is was disrespectful.
“To me, tone matters,” said Homer resident Ginny Espenshade. “And if a tone of a communication to parents is not an indication of the good faith or lack thereof during negotiations, I don’t know what is.”
O’Brien said that the intent of his letter, first and foremost, was to ask parents to prepare for a possible strike. He apologized to the representatives for KPEA and KPESA as well as to members of those bargaining teams.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “Respect is an important thing and perhaps I should have used the term ‘union leadership’ only once, maybe not at all.”
During their time to make comments, members of the school board said they respect and appreciate teachers. Several members of the board have had careers in teaching in this district and others also have children who attended or are attending schools in the district.