School board hears employee contract woes

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

Hundreds of people crowded into the Borough Building Monday evening to request more pay for school employees. The problem is, no one knows where such money might come from.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education had asked for public comment on the upcoming contract talks with employees. It got an earful.

More than 200 unhappy people showed up, and 44 stepped up to the microphone to offer testimony, often passionate, about the plight of educators as Alaska's education funding dwindles. Despite conciliatory words from the school board, many voiced displeasure with the administration and particularly with the negotiations, which got off to a rocky start Friday when the two sides failed to agree even on ground rules.

"We consider ourselves as your friends, not your adversaries," board president Dr. Nels Anderson told the crowd during the introductory remarks.

Maggie Corbisier is a speech therapist from Homer Middle School and a member of the negotiating team for the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, which represents the teachers. She had a tart reply.

"Your kind remarks and a buck and a half would buy me a cup of coffee," she said. "We need action."

Teachers dominated the crowd, but support staff, parents and high school students spoke out, as well.

Everyone present agreed that school workers deserve more and that the ultimate power to provide more rests with the Legislature. But emotions ran high. Rumors and recriminations flew.

Union members passed out flyers outlining their main areas of concern. Labeled "S.A.L.T.," the bright pink slips listed the hot topics as salary, association rights such as working conditions, lifelong wellness as expressed through the health care benefits, and the two-tier salary schedule.

The average district teacher earned $47,000 a year ago, according to figures compiled by the Association of Alaska School Boards. The potential pay this year ranges from a low of $33,500 to a high of $58,650. Depending on their category, they "top out" and stop getting raises after between five and 15 years.

Teachers, some with voices quavering with emotion, spoke vividly of personal experiences.

Darren Jones, who teaches computers and business at Skyview High School near Soldotna, was one of many teachers who grew up on the peninsula and testified at the meeting.

Hopes of a teaching career here are fading because of low pay, and families may be forced to leave, they said.

"The first year I was hired on I was so excited to be back in my hometown. My first year, in order to make ends meet, I coached three sports and was in charge of the yearbook," Jones said. "I find it ironic that, 72 credit hours later, my children still qualify for reduced lunch."

Jones supplements his school income with summer construction work. His brothers, with less education, earn more than he does.

"Money is not the only priority, but we have to raise our families," he said. "Every summer now I get recruitment letters from other districts. But I don't want to leave. This is my home."

Bruce Rife, a science teacher at Soldotna High School, spoke of other sacrifices. He joined the district when the two-tier salary schedule, which pays new teachers less than those hired before 1996, first went into effect. Despite winning national awards for his teaching, he will be ineligible for any raises after one more under the current contract.

"I guess I've always been left with the stigma that I am second rate," he said.

Rife pointed out that the toll on families goes beyond money issues. During the school year, teachers work long hours and take work home. He described how his little boy gave him a plaintive note asking him to take time to play.

"I think we are in it for the children," he said. "But I have to add I am in it for my children."

Hans Bilben, the president of the KPEA, expressed dismay at the way the preliminary talks are shaping up, but resolved to get talks on track and move forward. Like others, he urged changes at the state level.

It's not about this year. It's about the future. But there will be no future for public education in Alaska unless real changes are made, he said.

Despite the criticism, the school board and administration expressed sympathy for the employees' cause. Already glum from sober news received during work sessions earlier in the day (See related story page A-1), they listened to the testimony in silence. Although most who testified left as the hour grew late, the board members commented on the situation to those who remained at the end of the public portion of the meeting.

Board member Al Poindexter, a retired teacher, said he had experienced the same financial straits and shared the worry about Alaska's deteriorating education system.

"My two younger children are not receiving the same opportunities my two older ones did," he said.

Anderson expressed concern that people are unaware how hard the district has been working to bring relief to the situation. The board travels to Juneau, works extensively with peninsula lawmakers and had just had a teleconference with them that afternoon.

"By and large, our Republican lawmakers have been very good about supporting education funding," he said.

Board member Deb Germano emphasized that the school board alone cannot solve the fiscal dilemma. Lawmakers are skeptical of requests from school boards and administrators. They need to hear from parents and others, she warned.

Board member Margaret Gilman agreed.

"It is time to have a groundswell," she said. "We need to go to Juneau with all the parents and all the teachers and explain we need money."

See highlights from the school board testimony

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