Story last updated at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Schools'unions cry foul
by Carey James
Staff writer

The ongoing contract negotiations between the Kenai Peninsula School District and the district's teacher and support staff unions have now become a battle of unfair labor practices claims.

The unions announced this week that they are filing an unfair labor practices claim with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency in response to a letter from the district to its employees, in part outlining the district's April 13 offer. The unions say the letter is misleading, and violates bargaining laws.

According to Cathy Carrow, Kenai Peninsula Education Association vice president and bargaining team member, the letter is not the first violation by the district the unions have taken note of during negotiations.

"There have been previous instances where perhaps the district has stepped over the line. But this was very clear and blatant, and it came after their having filed an unfair labor practice against us," she said. "Sometimes you have to stand up to the bully."

The district, which filed its own unfair bargaining claim in May over an alleged interception of district e-mail that officials claimed gave the unions an unfair bargaining advantage, said the letter does not violate bargaining laws.

Whether the unions' claim has merit, however, is still up in the air. Jean Ward, an officer with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency who has been investigating the district's previous claim, said she has not received the complaint yet, and cannot speak to the specifics of it, but generally, an employer is allowed to communicate its position with its employees as long as that position was first brought to the table.

"Bargaining is not a one-way street," Ward said. "Both parties have an opportunity to make their position known. Where you generally get into an unfair labor practice is when you make an offer to an employee that you haven't offered to the union."

Ward said, however, that the district and the unions may have special ground rules specific to their negotiations that may further limit contact between the district and its employees.

She said she could not comment on the district's legal position if the information stated in the letter to employees is misleading or false.

Though district Superintendent Donna Peterson and Assistant Superintendent Todd Syverson, who both signed the letter to employees, were unavailable for comment, district Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Gary Whiteley said the unions' claim is unfounded.

"The district's position is that the line was not crossed," Whiteley said, adding that the letter contained important information for employees. "The letter was intended to inform employees of the district's positions, not from a bargaining sense."

The letter, which was dated July 2 and titled "2002-03 District employee contracts," contained information about employees' current status with the district since their official contract expired June 30. Employee contracts have rolled over since negotiations are continuing, and employees will continue to receive wage increases as detailed in the expired contract.

The second half of the letter, however, detailed the district's position in negotiations, with specific figures about the offer made on April 13. The April offer had a limited life span, however, and was pulled off the table after the unions did not accept it.

According to Carrow, when the negotiating teams asked the district negotiators what they considered to be their "last best offer," they stated an offer made in February, which included a wage freeze, was the last offer, since the April offer was rejected. Carrow said, therefore, that including information about the April 13 offer was misleading, since that offer is no longer valid.

In addition, the unions took issue with the district's interpretation of the percentage wage increase teachers would have seen from the April offer as stated in the district's letter.

The unions' letter stated, "Even if the district's April 13 package were still on the table, here's what it would really mean for your pocket book: A measly 3.5 percent increase over three years with no increases at all the (first) year -- not the 9 percent to 18 percent increase claimed by the district. A 3.5 percent increase translates to about $550 a year for teachers and $225 a year for full-time support staff."

"This is why these laws exist, said Carrow, in reference to the unions' perception of misinformation. "The district is giving them biased information."