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

Teacher offers ideas for improving employee morale, moving forward with negotiations
Charlie Stephens
When I first came to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, I was 6 years old, a first-grader at Moose Pass Elementary. My parents were my teachers there from first through sixth grade. They gave me the base I needed to move on and be successful in seventh through 12th grades in Seward. They were dedicated teachers who loved kids and loved to teach.

As a student in Seward, I was exposed to top quality educators who gave me the base I needed to be successful in college. I am especially thankful for the hands-on science experiences and the firm understanding of what long-term dedication to physical training can do for you. It was my level of fitness that enabled me to make short work of a bout with cancer my junior year in high school.

As a senior, a friend and mentor came to me and recruited me to be a teacher for this district: "Get your degree, and I guarantee you a job." My parents had guided me in that direction, too. They knew I enjoyed working with kids, and teaching had been good to them.

When I was hired at Nikiski Elementary in 1984, there were 60-plus applicants wanting the job. Just a few years later there were 100-plus applicants wanting jobs at the then new North Star Elementary in Nikiski. I felt so fortunate to be a part of teaching and of this district. I knew I was blessed.

Now, as I look at our current situation, I cannot help but wish I had made the change from education to physical therapy when I thought about it in college. I am very saddened by the state of our district and have deep regrets for ever becoming a teacher. I'm sure my mother and father are rolling over in their graves as I write this.

Morale -- n. An individual's state of mind with respect to the tasks he or she is expected to perform; espirit de corps.

A few years back, a teacher I greatly respect wrote an article in the local paper describing the desperate situation this district was in. Morale was the lowest she had ever seen it in her long career. I thought at that time I would never see morale at a lower level, and others agreed with me.

How wrong we were. I do not think the spirit of our district's workforce could possible be any lower than it is now. It is the lowest I have seen in my 19-year career, and I would bet that it is at an all-time low.

Money is not the only issue affecting the morale of the teachers. The negotiations process kicked off with a bang. A former police interrogator was hired as the district's lead man for negotiations.

I am still baffled as to why the leadership of our district would pay a tyrant big bucks to scream at teachers and call them names during negotiations sessions. It seems the negotiations process is a shell game rather than an honest look at finances and a truthful offer of what the district can afford to pay.

It is apparent the district is not willing to do whatever it takes to attract and keep the most important piece of the education puzzle: Quality educators and support staff.

Research has shown that throwing money at education does little good. Research also shows that money used to attract quality people is money well spent.

Teachers and support staff are the wheels that make a district run. The district needs to do whatever it takes to keep and attract quality people, even if it means raising pupil-teacher ratio to come up with the money to offer a competitive compensation package.

What can be done to get our district back on the right track? I believe the following would help:

  • Our district needs fair funding from the state.

    The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is funded at a lower level than the Mat-Su school district, even though it is far more urban than we are. In addition to our outlying schools along the highway, we have several schools across the water that are far more expensive to run.

    To quote fellow teacher Charlie Crangle: "A lawsuit may be the only thing that will move the immovable object known as our Legislature." Other states have used the judicial system to straighten out inequalities in funding. I urge everyone to contact the powers that be in Juneau and demand fair funding. I urge our district to file a lawsuit asking for fair funding.

  • Our state has got to stop pumping such huge dollars into the Bush.

    People wondering why our budget is so much higher per capita than elsewhere in the United States should look to the Bush for answers. We can no longer sit and watch while $15 million schools with $500,000 playing fields are being built for a handful of students. We cannot afford to create an urban environment in the Bush.

  • The district should roll back salaries of top administration to match the increases teachers have had over the last several years.

    This would not save much money, but it would send the message that top administration is not more deserving of pay raises than teachers and support staff. This would help improve the morale of our teachers and support staff.

  • The district should offer an official apology for hiring a former police interrogator as the lead negotiator for the district.

    It took a serious push from teachers and support staff to get this guy down the road, and the district has never offered us an apology.

    It is time to put vendettas, lawsuits and hurt feelings aside and get together to put things right in our district. In three years I can put my teaching career behind me, but many of my colleagues and the students of this district will still be here.

    What will be left for them? I hope a team effort will succeed in getting our district back on top where it belongs.

    Charlie Stephens is a physical education teacher at Soldotna Middle School.