Strike on table for school district staff

School district employees are considering a strike after contract negotiations were left unresolved Thursday afternoon.

Since May 8, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and two employee associations, Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, have been negotiating a contract in several collective bargaining meetings. Thursday’s session ended with no contract, and no plans for further meetings.

“Negotiations between teachers and classified school employees, including classroom paraeducators, custodians, secretaries, nurses and food service staff working for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have deteriorated leaving both unions looking at a possible strike,” a Thursday press release from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association said.

The associations took a soft survey to gauge members’ willingness to strike if their most recent proposal was rejected by the district. David Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said around 84% of their certified members were in support of a strike. Now, Brighton said, a more official vote will be taken to decide if the association members will strike. The associations are required to give the district a 72-hour notice ahead of any strike.

For the last year, contract negotiations have snagged on the rising cost of health care. A previous agreement effective through June 2018 remains in use for employees without contracts.

“Current health care costs are unpredictable, unaffordable, and unsustainable,” Brighton said in the release. “High health care costs have forced the district to consider layoffs, increasing class sizes, and school consolidation. This is not best for kids.”

Since 2017, the district has provided employees with two options for health care benefits, which include a high-deductible plan and a traditional plan. Employees pay 10% of the costs for the high-deductible plan, and 15% of the costs for the traditional plan.

At the last collective bargaining session, the associations gave a proposal asking the district to migrate employees from the traditional plan to the district’s high-deductible plan. The traditional plan has more expensive premiums, meaning more money taken out of employee’s paycheck. The high-deductible plan ensures less expensive premiums, but has a higher upfront cost to employees receiving medical care. The school district rejected the association’s proposal Thursday morning.

“The Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association understand the high cost of health care in Alaska and have offered the school district cost-saving proposals in negotiations,” Brighton said in a release. “The last proposal from both unions moves all Kenai Peninsula educators to a high deductible health plan to reduce health care costs. We know from last year’s experience when more than 400 educators moved on to the high deductible health plan, the district saved $1.2 million in health care costs. We predict that moving the entire group to the high deductible health plan changes healthcare usage and could save KPBSD a further million dollars.”

Brighton said the associations are looking to save the district and taxpayer money.

A proposal offered by the district, and rejected by the associations Thursday morning, takes away the option of the traditional plan for employees hired after the end of May, and increases the district’s contribution to the health care cap by $50 per month. When medical costs reach a cap’s limit — the district won’t split the cost 85/15 or 90/10, but instead split the cost 50/50 with the employee — putting more of the cost share on the employee.

After months of negotiations, district and employee associations could not come to an agreement, so in February, an arbitrator held a hearing to help guide contract negotiations.

The school district’s proposals for each employee association, was based on recommendations from the arbitrator’s report, released April 26.

The arbitrator’s report offered few suggestions for resolving the stalemate on health care costs but acknowledged the funding challenges facing the district as well as the evidence brought forth by the associations regarding health care employee cost share.

The report found that “evidence is irrefutable that it is costing KPBSD more to provide health care coverage, and that employees experience higher costs than virtually all of the other comparable districts,” which include districts in Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks.

There is no official plan for a strike at this time. Rachel Sinclair, who represents the classified school employees, said the employees will stand together for what is right.

“Doing the right thing is not easy,” Sinclair said in the association’s press release. “Our teachers and support staff will be standing together on this issue and conducting a membership strike vote.”