Story last updated at 12:26 p.m. Friday, September 6, 2002

Settlement may be near in school district disputes
by Carey James
Staff Writer

While some predict teachers will soon be asked to strike, others involved in the contentious school employee contract negotiations say an end to a host of legal allegations may be near.

Joe Josephson, the attorney representing Hans Bilben as well as other members of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association in a civil lawsuit against the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said Wednesday that an agreement may be forthcoming that will settle much of the peripheral legal crossfire between the unions and the district.

Contract negotiations, which began last spring, got off to a slow start and were quickly bogged down by an investigation into the allegedly illegal accessing of e-mail sent between district board members and the administration. The district, which alleges that the infiltrated e-mail corrupted the negotiations, has filed an unfair labor practices claim against the unions. The unions followed suit with their own claim, saying, in part, that the district has stalled negotiations and sent misleading information to district employees regarding the negotiations.

In August, Bilben, a teacher and KPEA president, along with several other union members, filed a lawsuit against the district for the restrictions placed on him as a result of his involvement in the district e-mail case. Bilben said he saw the e-mails, but only read a few before destroying them. The ones he read, he said, had nothing to do with contract negotiations. As a result, Bilben's district e-mail privileges were taken away and he was placed on "probationary status." Others involved in the e-mail incident may still face criminal charges as a result.

But much of that legal action may soon come to a close, Josephson said.

"There are elements in both camps that see it is in the public's best interest to bury the hatchet with a mutual spirit of give and take," Josephson said.

Josephson said he would not comment on the specifics of the proposed agreement as it has yet to be finalized, but said conversations have occurred on both sides. Neither the union negotiators nor district officials had any comment on the potential for a legal case house-cleaning agreement.

Agreement or no, the district and the unions are scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Sept. 12 and 13 after a summer hiatus. While some predict a quick downward spiral to the talks, ultimately resulting in a strike vote, union and district negotiators have a more positive outlook.

Bilben said Tuesday that the recent settlement of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough teachers' contract will hopefully set a precedent the district will follow.

"We believe it has set the bar," Bilben said. "With Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Mat-Su, I think we're the last on the road system to settle."

The Mat-Su agreement, according to Bilben, contained a $3,000 raise at all levels of the pay scale as well as significant contributions to health care costs. In addition, it is a one-year contract.

"There have been some fairly good settlements," Bilben said.

Bilben said he hopes the contract negotiations will restart constructively, and an agreement will be reached quickly.

"Our hope is to get back to the table in a much less contentious atmosphere," he said. "I'm going to be optimistic on this one."

District Superintendent Donna Peterson echoed Bilben's hopes, saying, however, that while the Mat-Su agreement has been noted, a direct comparison between the two districts is less than accurate. For one thing, Peterson said, the Kenai Peninsula district invests money in smaller class sizes.

"All districts are not equal," Peterson said. "You have to look at what a district has to offer and what a district can do. All the factors have to be weighed other than salary."

Peterson said her perception of the mood around the district is that teachers are genuinely happy in their jobs.

Others, however, are less convinced that the atmosphere, both in the schools and among the bargaining team, is so positive.

Phil Morin, a Nikiski teacher and longtime critic of the teachers union, said he and others expect the unions to call for a strike vote in October. He said, however, that he's not sure the support is there from the teachers for a strike.

"Lots of newcomers are saying, 'Hold it, I don't have a PFD, and there's no strike fund.'" Morin said. "(The unions) haven't done their homework."

Carey James can be reached at