Story last updated at 1:19 p.m. Thursday, November 14, 2002

Teachers, support staff unions say satisfactory compensation package essential
Hans Bilben
For the employees

There is not a single teacher or support employee in the Kenai Peninsula School District who wants to strike. However, if a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached at the negotiating table, I have little doubt that the vast majority of district employees will vote to do just that.

I am talking about a group of caring, dedicated professionals who are charged with shaping the future for Alaska's most valuable natural resource -- our kids. This is the same group of individuals who since 1986 have seen pay freezes, pay cuts, loss of benefits, increased healthcare costs, and, except for 1991, have had their compensation package fall behind the cost of living every single year.

This district was once the educational showpiece of Alaska, and, for that matter, the United States. Hiring the best and brightest was as simple as digging through the hundreds of applications for every job, selecting several top candidates to interview, and then trying to decide which highly qualified individual made the grade. Once hired, those people saw a bright future here with opportunity to advance, as well as a great place to live and raise a family. They stayed.

Today, there are few applicants (in some cases none) for most jobs. Sending district administrators on "recruiting" trips to the far corners of the United States hoping to fill positions is the norm.

There are positions in this district that are currently unfilled because qualified people will not apply. When adjusted for the cost of living, Alaska saw the largest decline (17 percent) in the United States for average teacher salaries from 1990 to 2000, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is one of the lowest of the low in the state. Quality employees are leaving this district for greener pastures. Turnover is very high, and morale is very low.

All school districts in Alaska have settled their contract negotiations except for one -- ours. After a very contentious round of negotiations, which included the resignation of their superintendent (after a vote of no confidence by the employee groups) and a near strike, Mat-Su went from pleading poverty on the part of their district to a settlement that has set the bar for all others on the road system.

Under the "best" proposal the Kenai Peninsula district has put on the table to date, a second-year teacher will make $2,901 (8.5 percent) less than his/her counterpart in Mat-Su. A teacher with 14 years experience here will make $9,800 (17 percent) less per year than his/her counterpart with equal training in Mat-Su.

Combine this with the fact that teachers in this district will pay $1,137 (190 percent) more in out-of-pocket costs for health-care coverage than their counterparts in Mat-Su and you should begin to see that attracting and retaining the "best and brightest" in this district is just not going to be a reality in the near future.

On Tuesday, a federal mediator will be in Soldotna to see if an agreement can be reached between the district and the two employee associations. Teachers and support staff have been working without a contract since June 30.

The negotiation process has moved at a snails pace for the past 10 months. The atmosphere at the table has been very adversarial, which means that the mediator's job now will be to act as an independent third party and allow both sides to look beyond individual differences in order to reach a fair and equitable agreement.

Mediation can work. But it will take a serious effort -- from both sides. What cannot happen is that the district comes to the table, as it has so many times in the past, with the idea that the entire burden of balancing the budget should be carried on the backs of teachers and support staff.

Can a strike be averted in this district? Absolutely. But a settlement will depend upon the willingness of the school board and the administration to assess their priorities, to perhaps think and look "outside the box," and finally to come to this mediation process ready to bargain in good faith.

The employee associations are, and I have to assume that the district is, anxious to see this round of negotiations come to a satisfactory conclusion. The key word here is "satisfactory." Anything short of that could surely lead us down a path that has not yet been traveled in this district.

Hans Bilben is teacher at Skyview High School in Soldotna and is president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association.