Story last updated at 4:46 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

School board member: Despite setbacks, solution possible without job action
Joe Arness
As the process of finding a new set of contracts for school district employees unfolds, I think it is appropriate to provide an update to the community. As we are all aware, this has been an arduous process, with charges and counter-charges, lawsuits, name-calling and now votes of no confidence. I hope to report, as objectively as I can, the progress to date, and the process yet to unfold.

On July 1 of this year, the contracts under which the district had been operating expired. Pursuant to the language of those contracts, discussions began last February to negotiate a replacement document. As we are all aware, those discussions got off to a rocky start, leaving both the unions and the administration feeling frustrated.

We were, however, able to progress past that bad beginning and move along to the business of finding new agreements. As may be expected, the two sides are primarily divided along economic lines -- in other words, how much is the district going to pay for the services of its employees?

While a lot has happened during these months, and there is certainly not space nor time to go into all the issues which have arisen, there are a few which deserve comment:

  • The pay and benefit package being offered by the district is an insult, and will result in a set of "sub-standard" employees in the future.

    Actually, the package currently being offered by the district is very competitive with other districts in our area. While we do not include the kind of raise which was just given by the Mat-Su school district, what we are proposing is reasonable and affordable, and the end result is very competitive. In fact, it is more attractive than the new contract in Anchorage if salary levels, health benefits and years of experience which may be brought in are compared.

    The conversation about not being able to attract and retain quality people also is flawed. In fact, we had no trouble attracting 85 highly qualified people this last summer for jobs which had opened -- and the fact that fully half of our classroom staff have been here long enough to have reached the top of the salary schedule would seem to indicate that we can retain employees.

    Maintaining the ability to attract and retain qualified personnel is very important to the district.

  • The district ruined negotiations by bringing in a "hired gun" to destroy the unions.

    Last fall, the district was looking for a human resources director to replace Sharon Radtke. One candidate's resume indicated lots of experience, both in human resources and in negotiations. Hiring him seemed like a logical thing to do. With the commencement of negotiating sessions, it became pretty quickly apparent that his style of negotiating was not what we (the administrative team members) were looking for. So, he was replaced.

    In fact, the superintendent personally apologized to the presidents of both unions and requested a clean start to the process after he had been relieved of his duties.

    Clearly, he was not the person for our situation, but the mistake was realized, acknowledged, handled and apologized for.

  • The district is stalling.

    For what purpose? There have been times when scheduling was difficult; there are a lot of people around that table and getting them all there at the same time is sometimes a problem. The fact that this process is difficult to schedule, in my opinion, is a problem for which responsibility should be shared equally. I do not, however, believe there is intent to stall on either side, as there is nothing to be gained by delay.

  • The district is not telling the truth about its financial situation.

    For what purpose? The financial situation of the district is public record. Audited financial statements are available to anyone, including the unions. There is no financial gain to anyone by distorting the district's financial realities. We, as the administrative team, must look at those realities and decide a course of action. Distortion of those realities serves no purpose.

  • The district does not value its employees.

    What is the district, if not its employees? How can you not value something which comprises 80 percent of your organization? Everyone at central office and on the board of education recognizes and appreciates the job that each of our employees does. Money is important, but dramatic increases in union pay scales are not the only way to demonstrate respect and appreciation for a job well done.

  • We are headed for a strike.

    I don't buy into this. The nature of negotiations is that two groups with differing viewpoints on a common situation get together and try to work out their differences. I am very hopeful that mediation will provide some solution to the current dilemma.

    I do not, for a minute, believe that a strike will be necessary for either side to achieve its goals. When all is said and done, we are talking about two groups of very reasonable people who can solve their differences without job action.

  • The associations have voted no confidence in the superintendent.

    With an absolute understanding that in an organization of 1,200 people, some are not going to like the job the CEO is doing, I will absolutely not buy into this no-confidence stuff. My involvement with Donna Peterson over the years has always been positive, productive and inspirational.

    Unfortunately, for a few moments in time, elements of this district are "turned against" one another in this process. It does not do anyone any good to start calling names and throwing rocks. Everyone involved should be focused on being professional, informed and cognizant of the "other side's" view.

    Anyone interested in this process may view the current district proposal on the district's Web site ( A fact sheet is included that highlights the significant portions of the offer.

    I truly believe that we will find a mutually agreeable contract. I only hope we don't burn down the excellent district we have all worked so hard to create in the process.

    Joe Arness is a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education. This column represents his viewpoint alone.