Story last updated at 3:22 p.m. Thursday, September 12, 2002

Contract talks face uncertain outcome
by Carey James
Staff Writer

As negotiations resume today over teacher and support staff contracts between the education unions and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, both sides are publicly asserting their optimism.

At the same time, however, others have said that the possibility for talks to break down quickly is high, and the spirit of cooperation between the sides is far from apparent from the continued exchange of legal actions. (See related story, Page 1.)

For the time being, however, both sides must at least enter into a discussion on all the items included in the contract before an impasse can be reached, said district superintendent Donna Peterson.

Even if the negotiations hit a stumbling block, as is so far the case with the largest points of contention between the two sides -- salary and health care -- talks must continue on some of the more minor points until all issues are discussed.

"Both sides have to declare an impasse, which means they have talked all they are going to talk about each section," Peterson said.

Once the impasse is declared, a federal mediator would be scheduled, Peterson said. A mediator would meet with both sides and determine if there is any possibility for a compromise. While the district says it has had success with mediation in the past, in the case of the recent Matanuska-Susitna Borough teachers union contract negotiations, mediation lasted only one day.

If a mediator determines the sides are too far apart, the process moves on to arbitration, Peterson said. An arbitrator will analyze both sides, and will write a report, which includes findings. If both sides entered into a binding arbitration agreement, whatever is in the report must be adopted. But since a binding arbitration agreement in 1996 was not favorably viewed by the unions, the union negotiators will not agree to another, said teachers union president Hans Bilben.

Instead, the arbitrator's report will be used as a reference tool.

While the unions may take an advisory strike vote before the arbitrator's report is released, it isn't until after that point that the union members can take job action, such as a strike.

If a strike did occur, Peterson said, the district would treat it like a snow day and schools would close.

"We have made the determination that we cannot run our schools without our quality staff," she said.

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com

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