Story last updated at 1:41 p.m. Thursday, May 2, 2002

School talks delayed by e-mail case
by Carey James
Staff Writer

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District said it hopes to conclude an investigation this week into an alleged e-mail security breach that delayed contract negotiations between the district and teacher and staff unions.

The investigation started when district superintendent Donna Peterson discovered an e-mail she had sent to a school board member had been read, but not by the board member. As the district began checking more e-mails, it discovered a pattern of intercepted messages, she said, some of which may have contained confidential information about the ongoing contract negotiations.

The district would not say if its investigation has uncovered evidence that the confidential e-mail information was relayed to any of the 10 members on the bargaining team for the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.

But negotiations scheduled for last Monday were canceled, and the two sides instead met in a closed-door session to discuss the investigation.

District Superintendent for Instruction Gary Whitely said Tuesday that the district has concluded its interviews and "several" people have been placed on administrative leave.

"We are still trying to assess who logged in as whom," Whitely said.

The district has not released any names or even the number of people being investigated, saying it is trying to protect people's identities.

Whitely said while the district is hoping to conclude the investigation this week, that goal may be unattainable without cooperation from those being investigated.

"It depends on the willingness of some people to discuss the issues," Whitely said. "Several people have invoked the Fifth Amendment, and that slows things down considerably."

He added that at least some district employees being investigated have sought legal council.

Two misdemeanors and one felony law at a state level alone pertain to such misuse of computers, such as manipulating an e-mail system to receive mail not intended for the user.

The felony relates to criminal use of a computer, including the "use of a computer if, having no right to do so ... the person knowingly accesses, causes to be accessed, or exceeds the person's authorized access to a computer, computer system, computer program (or) computer network ....."

The law carries a penalty of up to five years in jail and a maximum fine of $50,000.

According to Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Jim Hibpshman, while the computer laws may be news to many on the Kenai Peninsula, the district is well versed in these laws because of incidents in which students hacked into the district computer system. According to Hibpshman, the district has maintained a "zero tolerance policy" on such action.

Whitely said, however, that the ultimate decision as to whether employees under investigation will be charged is up to the administration.

"That is a decision that the administration will have to make with (Donna) Peterson," he said.

As for the fate of stalled contract negotiations, both the district and union negotiators say they are hopeful talks will move forward soon. A meeting is tentatively set for May 16.

Whitely said the district was able to discuss what the investigation has uncovered so far at the Monday meeting with union negotiators.

"It was a very fruitful discussion," he said. "There was a lot of anxiety at the beginning because in the absence of information, people think the worst. It was a positive discussion, and we were able to minimize misinterpretations."

Teachers union president Hans Bilben, who is not a union negotiator and therefore did not attend the meeting, said that based on what he has heard from the district thus far, he doesn't understand why the district suspended negotiations.

"In light of what they have seen and heard that I know of, it seems that it is not a necessity that they suspend negotiations," he said.

Bilben said after the May 16 meeting, it could become more difficult to find a future meeting time because of end-of-school events. After school ends, he said, some negotiators may have jobs, vacations and other conflicts that keep them from attending meetings.

The district and the unions are still far apart on many sections of the contract negotiations. Though the district has moved from its first offer, which included a wage freeze, to an offer that includes current step increases next year and a 1.5 to 2 percent salary increase the following years, as well as a larger contribution to health care.

That was rejected in mid-April by the unions. They have asked for a one-year contract with a 7 percent increase in salaries, which the district has said would stretch its budget far beyond its capacity, considering the limited state funding received in recent years.

Dave Larson, spokesman for the teachers union, said while he wouldn't comment on the specifics of Monday's discussion, he said he still hopes the two sides will reach an agreement soon.

"Our goal is to have a contract that our membership can ratify by the end of the school year," Larson said. "I believe that it can happen."