Contract talks for school employees are mired in controversy before they even have begun.
Talks between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the unions representing its teachers and support staff are heading for a third round. And that is just to set the ground rules, usually a simple housekeeping matter before the main event.
"The ground rules seem to be a monumental stumbling block that they don't need to be," said Richard Putney, the district's human resources director and negotiating spokesperson.
"I would be interested in moving this forward."
Set against the backdrop of gaping budget deficits and abysmal morale, both sides expressed frustration and pessimism even before the process started. Employees say they have borne the burden of the state's education cutbacks too long and are demanding more remuneration. The administration says it has no money to give.
Three bargaining teams, representing the Kenai Peninsula Education Association for the teachers, the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association for the support staff and the district's administration and school board, first met Jan. 18. The meeting's purpose was to set the ground rules and schedule for the formal talks for new contracts to go into effect in the fall.
Although veterans of past contract talks expected setting the ground rules to be a routine procedure lasting several hours, the discussion turned bitter and inconclusive.
The two unions, which are working in tandem, and the administration agreed to return to the ground rules discussion and set a second meeting for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Borough Building in Soldotna.
At times it seemed the only unifying decision for the 20 people around the table in the borough assembly chamber was ordering in pizzas for lunch.
The meeting began glumly and slowly went downhill from there. It ended on a sour note nearly an hour behind schedule, when David Larson, spokesperson for the KPEA, and Putney sparred over a copy of the teachers' union's proposed ground rules. Putney wanted to end it and resume at the next session.
Larson insisted on continuing the meeting to finish the task and said, "You are already throwing around inflammatory statements. ... I do not appreciate being interrupted every other word. ...
"There has been an inordinate amount of rhetoric."
Putney convinced Larson to hand over the list, then terminated the meeting.
"You can sit here all night," Putney said. "We will caucus until the 13th."
About a dozen people, mostly union members, sat in to watch the proceedings. They said they were embarrassed by the dialogue and criticized Putney's negotiating style as abrasive.
"Nothing is being accomplished," said Indy Walton, who teaches at Skyview High School.
The lone student present, Soldotna High School junior Joe Blanchard, said observing the meeting was an eye-opener about the political process.
"It is kind of sad when people are arguing about whether to have an agenda," he said.
So far, students remain, for the most part, unaware of the district's financial plight and the possible ramifications for next year. But teachers are talking about it, and Blanchard's history class has begun discussing it, he said.
"If they get into a stalemate, (the effect) is going to trickle down pretty fast," he said.
The negotiating teams agreed on most of the ground rules proposed, such as appointing speakers, calling caucuses and initialing tentative agreements. After lively discussion, they also agreed on how to set agendas.
But they still found plenty to haggle over. Areas of disagreement included:
Open meetings vs. confidentiality
Both sides expressed a preference for negotiating in public as much as possible, but acknowledged that some discussions about litigation or personnel may require confidentiality.
The union requested that the need to go behind closed doors be determined by mutual consent.
The administration insisted that either party could request confidentiality unilaterally. Putney said the district could be legally liable for the wrong information getting out and therefore must reserve the right to determine confidentiality on its own.
"Unless or until impasse in negotiations is mutually agreed to, neither party will make unilateral press releases," said the administration's list of proposed ground rules.
Putney expressed concern that someone might issue inflammatory press releases if negotiations were tense.
"We don't want to take shots across the bow," he said.
He also asked for assurances that the union teams would disavow any remarks made by what he called "lone wolves" who might voice private opinions on the negotiations.
The unions, via KPESA spokesperson Buck George, disagreed, calling the proposal unnecessarily restrictive.
"We feel this is nothing more than a gag order," George said.
The unions want to set a time limit and call for mediation if the contract talks do not produce a tentative agreement by the beginning of March. They would set a March 15 deadline for starting mediation.
Putney objected. He said the clause implies that the unions decided in advance that the talks could not succeed.
George rejected that interpretation.
"It is, basically, not condemning the process to failure," he said.
Putney asked to set the matter aside.
"If, at some time at the next meeting, we are hopelessly mired in a quagmire, I would agree to consider mediation," he said. "We can agree to disagree ... and move us along."
The order of discussion
The administrative team wanted to divide the contract provisions into economic and noneconomic sections, planning to tackle the noneconomic first. It recommended dealing with money issues later when more will be known about the Legislature's school bills and grants that may change the district's revenue forecast.
The union team wanted to work through the contract articles in numerical order.
Leave time for union mediators
The union negotiating team members are asking the district to provide them additional paid leave for the time they spend working on the contracts.
The administration already provides them up to 60 days per school year to work on union business. That should be plenty, Putney said.
When to meet again
The union team asked to push ahead, complete the ground rules and exchange contract proposals as soon as possible.
George said the current contract specifies that bargaining must begin no later than Friday. He pressed for extending the Saturday session and setting a follow-up meeting for Sunday, this evening or Tuesday.
Putney rejected Sunday for religious reasons and the next two days because administrators and school board members will be busy conducting public hearings on the school budget in Homer and Nikiski. He recommended that the substantive negotiations be put off until mid-March, after district delegations traveled to Juneau to discuss funding prospects with the Legislature.
"There may be great hope at the end of the rainbow," he said.
George expressed dismay at the delays.
"Would it be the district's wish to violate this sacred document by not meeting before Feb. 15?" he asked.
Eventually, the two sides compromised by setting a meeting Wednesday evening at the Borough Building. But even that conclusion lacked consensus.
According to the administration press release, the meeting will begin at 5. According to the unions, it will begin at 6:30.
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