Story last updated at 2:38 p.m. Thursday, September 26, 2002

Impasse declared in school district contract talks

Mediation next after teachers, support staff reject latest offer

Morris News Service-Alaska
photo: news

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Jill Showman, a teacher at the Voznesenka school, holds up her sign, center, soliciting honks of support for the current teacher contract negotiations, while Lori Ford of McNeil Canyon Elementary School, left, and Alan Olson, right, march, along with others  
Contract negotiations for teachers and support staff in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District reached an impasse last Friday. The process will now go before a federal mediator.

The impasse came after a tense morning of negotiations at the Borough Building in Soldotna. Negotiating teams for the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association and the district spent much of the morning arguing about the interpretation of a district proposal on salary scales and health care benefits presented at the Sept. 19 session.

The district's offer to the KPEA includes elimination of the tier two salary schedule, which paid newer employees at a lower rate than their peers who had been hired earlier. The association has strongly argued for the elimination of the inequity.

The proposal also includes the following: In year one, teachers in steps zero through five (based on experience with the district) would receive a standard step increase of about $1,275, plus an additional $500 per step moved. Teachers in steps six through 18 would receive the same standard step increase, as well as an additional $1,000 per cell. Steps 16 through 18 would be added to the salary schedule, providing additional advancement opportunities for longtime teachers and moving the top end of the scale from $58,650 to $63,373.

In year two, teachers in steps zero through five would receive a step increase and an additional $1,000. Those in steps six through 18 would receive a step increase and an additional $500.

In year three, all certified employees would receive a step increase, plus a cost-of-living increase of up to 2 percent, based on figures released from Anchorage. Certified employee salaries would range from $36,033 to $64,096.

The district's offer to the KPESA also includes the elimination of the tier two salary schedule, which affects about 45 percent of the support staff. Employees would receive a standard step each year, as well as a 1.5 percent raise in year two and a 2 percent raise in year three.

Wages range dramatically for support staff depending on position, but the raises would, for example, mean that a food service worker could go from $9.98 an hour last year to $11.58 an hour in 2004-05. A school secretary or head custodian could go from $16.66 an hour last year to $19.13 an hour in 2004-05.

In addition to the salary schedule proposals, the district also presented a health insurance proposal to the associations. Though the district's contribution to employee health insurance increases in the proposal, so does the employee contribution.

"We don't see movement toward us, we see movement away from us," said KPEA spokesperson Dave Larson. "The district looks at the contract as a static document. If you offer a plus on one end, there's a minus on the other."

District spokesperson and school board member Joe Arness said the district is aware employee contributions are increasing, but that's necessary because the overall cost of health care is rising dramatically nationwide.

"The staggering increase in health care (costs) is a problem," Arness said. "It's a problem for you, it's a problem for us. Us chasing it is not the solution."

According to a summary put together by the district, these offers would cost the district about $6.5 million, including about $1 million of the current year's budget that would have to be shifted around.

The associations did not make a formal response to the proposals, but did put together a summary of their positions. In a written statement, the associations claim that the district offer to certified employees amounts, at the most, to "a 5.46 percent increase, less than 2 percent a year."

The district proposal to classified employees drew even less support.

"These proposed increases do not address the rise in the cost of living, let alone provide an actual salary increase," the associations wrote.

"The district needs to come up to competitors," said KPESA spokesperson Buck George. "The compensation package has to be competitive, comparable (to other public employees and other Alaska school districts)."

The district maintains that the proposal offers significant pay raises to employees. The associations, however, contend that yearly step increases based on experience with the district do not constitute a raise.

The employees look at the yearly steps as a reclassification, said KPEA spokesperson Dave Larson.

"That's not a raise," he said, adding that under the association's definition, an increase of pay should offset cost of living increases.

After a lengthy discussion on Friday, Larson suggested the teams declare an impasse, acknowledging that they could go no further in negotiations without outside help.

"We realize that the offer you made (Thursday) could be viewed as your last, best offer," Larson said. "We ultimately believe it is not the best offer you could make."

He then removed the teachers' most recent pay scale and health benefit offer, presented Sept. 13, from the table and suggested the teams declare an impasse.

KPESA spokesperson Buck George echoed Larson, removing the support staff association's most recent pay scale and health benefit offer from the table.

"The district has not kept pace with the cost of living," George said. "The proposal did not meet the needs of employees, did not meet the cost of living, and it is an insult."

Arness stood his ground.

"I apologize if that's how you received the offer," he said. "But I don't apologize for the offer."

The district agreed to the impasse and the spokespersons planned to make a conference call to the federal mediator assigned to the district. The teams will set up a mediation schedule as soon as possible.

The mediator will have up to 30 days to try to help the teams reach suitable contract agreements for teachers and support staff. The process will be closed to the public. If the mediation process fails, the case will go to arbitration. An arbitrator will compose suggested contracts for the two associations, and the contract will go before a vote of the associations' membership.

Peninsula Clarion reporter Jenni Dillon supplied the information for this story.