A group of teachers gather outside the entrance to West Homer Elementary and Big Fireweed Academy wearing “red for ed” Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 in Homer, Alaska. Teachers around the Kenai Peninsula demonstrated this week to bring awareness to the contract negotiation situation with the school district. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

A group of teachers gather outside the entrance to West Homer Elementary and Big Fireweed Academy wearing “red for ed” Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 in Homer, Alaska. Teachers around the Kenai Peninsula demonstrated this week to bring awareness to the contract negotiation situation with the school district. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Teachers, unions getting frustrated by contract negotiations

Teachers and representatives from the unions that represent them are speaking up about their frustrations with the current contract negotiations with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, a negotiation that has left teachers working without a contract for more than 100 days.

District educators and classified staff (teacher support positions) have been without a renewed contract since July 1. That means they are currently working without knowing exactly what they will end up making for the year because a new contract hasn’t been negotiated yet.

Initial offers were made last year by both the school district and the two unions representing staff: the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association. Leaders of those unions have accused the district representatives of not being communicative or willing to come to the table. The district made a proposal in October 2018, said KPBSD Media Liaison Pegge Erkeneff in an email. It was a Memorandum of Agreement to use one-time funds to increase employee compensation in current year FY19, without increasing the salary schedule. That was rejected by both associations.

At this point, both sides have declared an impasse, said KPEA President David Brighton.

“The district has made no effort to meet us in the middle,” he said.

The offers made by the unions so far have been rejected, Brighton said.

“Every time we go to negotiations, it’s a frustrating experience,” he said. “It’s long, it’s slow. It feels like the district doesn’t want to make any significant offers.”

The district recognized that it’s a slow process and pointed out that all parties agreed to wait for an arbiter since the last meetings in October 2018.

“There has been a long time gap between the last time everyone met at the bargaining table in mid-October, and when an arbitrator could be available to meet with the district and associations later this month,” Erkeneff wrote. “All three parties, KPESA, KPEA, and the district, agreed to the delay when arbitration was planned instead of searching for a different arbiter.”

Brighton said that, so far, the unions and district have been able to work through and agree on smaller things like language changes in the contract. Tentative agreements in the collective bargaining, as well as initial offers, can be viewed here: communications.blogs.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/2018/09/20/collective-bargaining-tentative-agreements-ta/

“What we haven’t agreed on is salary and benefits,” he said.

Health care is the major sticking point, along with pay for teachers and support staff. They have been the major sticking points for the last few negotiations.

According to Erkeneff, both staff associations asked the district to look into switching to providing health care through the Public Education Health Trust. An analysis was completed, but after receiving the quote and rate information, none of the three parties proposed going with health insurance through the trust.

The last contract for the school district took a year and a half to come to fruition, and also had to go to arbitration.

“Certainly we are willing to go to arbitration, and we’ll probably spend those two days with an arbitrator,” Brighton said.

Arbitration is currently scheduled for the end of February. The arbiter meets with both the district and unions, and later presents a compromise contract. That contract, however, isn’t binding, Brighton said. If neither party is satisfied with what the arbiter comes up with, they could essentially be back where they started.

If the district and unions do participate in arbitration, the soonest a decision could be expected is the end of April, Brighton said. To show their frustration at the slow pace of negotiations, teachers at several schools around the peninsula have been performing “stand ins,” in which they gather outside their schools in the morning before their official contracted time starts.

Teachers from West Homer Elementary and Big Fireweed Academy gathered before school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, all wearing the color red. This comes from the national “Red for Ed” campaign that supports educators.

Katie Bynagle, a fourth grade teacher, said the negotiations so far have been “really frustrating.” She said what she sees as lack of cooperation from the district shows a certain level of disrespect for teachers and support staff.

Bynagle said she and other teachers realized many parents in the community weren’t aware of the contract situation. The demonstrations in front of the school are a good way to engage with parents as they bring their kids to school and help spread awareness, she said.

“They know what it is that we do,” she said. “It’s that they don’t know that we don’t have a (renewed) contract, they don’t know all of these other things that are going on that are taking up our time and our energy.”

Bynagle, too, hit on health care as a major issue facing teachers working in the district.

“Our health care costs are skyrocketing and that takes a huge percentage out of our pay that we get,” Bynagle said. “So people might look at what we make and think, ‘Oh, that’s a lot,’ but the reality is, when you’re having hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds (of dollars) taken out in insurance every month, it makes it hard.”

The school district has a traditional plan and a high-deductible health plan. Teachers have criticized what they see as repercussions of that two-plan system, which they say has split up the pool of people paying in to the plan, making it harder to support.

Stephanie Zuniga teaches mainly math and science to third through sixth graders at Big Fireweed Academy. She said the purpose of the stand ins is to raise awareness of the situation to both local community members and officials at the borough and state level.

“I understand that there’s deficits in our budget,” Zuniga said. “But those deficits … our kids don’t need to have the burden of those deficits. The teachers, really dedicated teachers, should not be the ones to take those burdens of the deficits.”

Zuniga said she’d like to see the district administration volunteering to share that burden more with educators in terms of budgeting and salaries.

Rachel Sinclair, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, said the two unions helped teachers organize the demonstrations, helping them abide by certain rules and time constraints.

“We’re all in it together and we all have to stand together in this,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair also expressed frustration at what she sees as lack of cooperation from the district.

“There’s been nothing worth our while to accept to come up with a contract,” she said.

Sinclair said that if the negotiations go to arbitration, she hopes the arbiter comes back with a decision in the educators’ favor.

“We’re not asking for 25-percent raises,” she said. “We’re not asking for 5-percent raises.”

In their initial offers, the unions asked for a three-year contract. They asked for a 0.5-percent raise for the first year (the current school year), a 1-percent raise in the next year and a 2-percent raise in the third, according to Brighton.

John Sharp is another teacher at West Homer Elementary, who did not participate in the demonstrations. He said he understands where the unions are coming from, but that it’s also important to understand the fiscal situation of the state overall.

“It’s a complex process,” he said of the negotiations. “In my experience with the district, this is not unusual for the district to go into arbitration.”

Sharp suggested that the district could potentially be holding back in negotiations because members of its administration aren’t sure what they’ll be getting out of Juneau. Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Jan. 28 a proposed cut to education statewide of $20 million that the Alaska Legislature had appropriated the previous year. If that proposal passes, the local school district would lose $1.4 million it had already included in its budget planning.

“We are now working with the legislature to ensure this year’s (FY19) one-time funding remains in place to provide the services and staff we budgeted last spring,” Erkeneff wrote.”Everyone is waiting for the Governor’s revised FY20 Budget and by all indications, there will be a proposal to match revenues with expenditures, which could mean fiscal and-or programmatic or operational cuts to education. Additionally, in our work with the Kenai Peninsula Borough (KPB), the district is also concerned there may be funding reductions to public education on the peninsula.”

From Sharp’s perspective, both sides need to be more communicative and cooperative with each other.

“People just need to sit down and be real with each other,” he said. “They need to stop doing this standoff thing.”

Sinclair said many teachers from across the peninsula are planning to attend the next Board of Education meeting, scheduled for Monday, Feb. 11 in Soldotna. She said transportation is being provided to Seward and Homer to make it easier for teachers there to make the trip.

Zuniga said it’s telling that teachers from the southern peninsula will be making the several-hour trip to Soldotna and back to make their voices heard that night, when they have to be at school at 7:30 a.m. the next morning.

Erkeneff said it’s important for the public to know the district’s school board doesn’t have the power to directly raise funds for the district.

“They have to depend on the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the State of Alaska to provide educational funding,” she wrote. “The district requests that people make the time to participate with those two elected bodies to ensure education-funding revenue is allocated and dispersed for the FY19, and FY20 budgets.”

“We are in the advisory arbitration phase of the process,” she also wrote. “And I think it is fair to say that everyone would like a new, fair negotiated agreement in place, so the focus can return to teaching and our students.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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