Negotiations began Friday in what bode to be difficult contract talks between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and unions representing its teachers and support staff.
The employees seek redress for eroding wages and increased workloads, while the district struggles with financial straits and must limit expenditures. The current three-year contract expires at the end of June.
"It really does come back to funding," said Hans Bilben, a vocational teacher at Skyview High School and president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, the union representing the teachers. "Inflation is just eating up any kind of lifestyle a teacher might expect."
The public is invited to comment on the contract options Monday at the school board meeting starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Borough Building in Soldotna.
Bilben predicted t hat three main issues will be on the negotiating table: salaries, the structure of the pay scale and health insurance benefits.
Teachers' earnings in Alaska used to be the nation's highest. But by 2000 the average state salary had slipped to 10th in the nation, according to a report from the American Federation of Teachers.
Alaska teachers still earn more than the national average teacher's salary of $41,820. But while other states have been pumping up education budgets, Alaska has not. On a list of states showing rates of spending increases, Alaska ranks last, with less than half the increase seen in the 49th place state, Arizona.
It also ranks last with respect to increasing teacher pay. Studies show that the average Alaska teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 16.9 percent in the past decade, Bilben said.
In the Kenai district, teacher salaries depend on the numbers of years they work, when they were hired and the amount of education they have. For example, during this school year, salaries range from $33,500 to $58,650. Last year, the average teacher in the district earned $47,166.
Teachers get an annual step increase of about 3 to 4 percent per year. They consider those increases to reflect added experience and education rather than as raises, Bilben explained.
After five to 15 years, depending on credentials, a teacher reaches the top of the step increase ladder and pay levels plateau.
Bilben said the current pay scale squeezes the young teachers, who have bleak prospects for earning a middle-class income, and the senior teachers, who watch inflation devalue stagnant pay from year to year.
The employees want the new contract to move the entire salary grid higher.
"I think teachers are starting to feel here they have tried to keep costs down and have accepted some very bad contracts," Bilben said. "Teachers are just numb to cuts."
The two-tier salary schedule:
Six years ago, in an effort to curb costs, the district set up a system that pays new teachers on a lower scale than those hired earlier and tops out their potential salaries three years earlier. The second tier has been unpopular with teachers, and they want to get rid of it.
The salary schedule makes it difficult for the district to recruit and keep new teachers, Bilben said.
"I think it scares off a lot of people," he said.
If the second tier stays in effect, he predicted that the district would soon have the lowest top salary in the state. For a teacher with only a bachelor's degree, the current maximum is $38,908 after five years.
"Nobody would stick around," he said.
Health care benefit payments:
Once upon a time the district paid health insurance premiums for its employees. But that was another perk lost during the 1990s.
Bilben said that health insurance premium increases, after several years of moderation, are soaring again. The negotiators got word Tuesday that costs will go up again next year.
"Right now it is like a runaway train," he said.
Beginning teachers pay about 6 percent of their salaries for coverage. The increasing percentage deducted from paychecks makes yet another effective pay cut, he said.
Bilben said teachers do not fault the district itself for high workloads and low pay, although he questioned some priorities. But the response to the educators' requests ultimately is in the hands of the Alaska Legislature, which controls the amount of money available for education.
"I think we will need to apply pressure at the state level to see that the funding level is adequate," Bilben said. "We have to work with the legislators on improving school funding."
Two employee unions are working together on the process. The KPEA and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, representing support staff such as school nurses, secretaries, custodians and food service workers, have a combined negotiating team. Six teachers represent KPEA and five support workers represent the KPESA.
The school district administration's negotiating team consists of senior managers from the district's central office, principals and school board members.
The other employee union, the Kenai Peninsula Administrators' Association (KPAA), which represents the principals, handles its affairs separately and is not a party to the current talks.
Friday's meeting was to set up ground rules for future talks, including a calendar of meetings and guidelines for how much of the process should be public. Participants said it went slower than expected.
The next meeting will be Feb. 9 at the Borough Building in Soldotna. It will not be open to the public.
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