Story last updated at 1:08 p.m. Thursday, September 19, 2002

School negotiators return to table
by Carey James
Staff Writer

Negotiation teams from the school district and school employees' unions returned to the table last week and settled a handful of contract items, but significant distance still remains between the two sides on salary and health care costs.

After a three-month break from talks, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association teams spent time Thursday and Friday negotiating several nonmonetary issues. While both sides say negotiations were "cordial," all admit a consensus over the thorny issues of salary and health care coverage are still a long way off.

"The two sides are quite a ways apart at this time," said Todd Syverson, district assistant superintendent, adding that the remainder of the issues yet unsettled are mostly financial.

For KPEA, 47 contract points have been tentatively agreed upon, while 22 are still pending. KPESA has 18 agreed points and 17 still on the table, Syverson said.

The district returned to the table with the same proposal it offered earlier this spring, but this time did not attach a sunset clause to the offer. The district's proposal offers no salary increases this year (other than step increases), a 1.5 percent increase next year and a 2 percent increase the following year.

In contrast, the teachers union is proposing a 7 percent across-the-board salary increase this year, a cost of living plus 2 percent increase next year and a cost of living increase plus 1 percent the third year, said Hans Bilben, KPEA president.

In health care, the district has proposed covering $550 per employee per month. The unions have asked for $750 from the district per employee per month this year, $800 next year, and $850 the third year of the contract.

Syverson said the district is still analyzing the cost of the union's proposal.

The unions did propose a three-year contract, a move from their former request for a one-year contract. That offer, however, is contingent on at least receiving a cost of living increase annually, which averages between 2 and 3 percent.

"We've made it real clear that we are not going to keep falling behind the cost of living," Bilben said. "That's how we got where we are now."

Since all contract points have now been discussed, negotiations can now move into the mediation phase if both sides agree. Syverson said the subject did not come up last week, but Bilben said if the district does not return to the table with a new offer, it will be discussed when negotiations resume today.

"If there isn't movement, mediation then would be a strong likelihood," Bilben said.

District board members and staff met Wednesday in a special executive session to discuss negotiations.

If mediation is suggested, it could take as long as a month or more to schedule such a discussion, Syverson said, depending on the mediator's schedule.

Bilben said it is his understanding that if one side does not agree to mediation, talks would move on to the arbitration phase. It is his understanding, however, that the unions plan to do everything possible to settle the negotiations at the table, he said.

The unions have not asked employees to vote on any of the proposals submitted by the district, Bilben said, but based on surveys of the employees in the past, nothing the district has offered as yet has come close to the requests of the employees.

"We are seven months into negotiations now, and all we have accomplished is coming back to the status quo on several sections," Bilben said. "We really haven't showed any gains."

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homer-news.com.

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