Money separates contract proposals

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and its two largest employee unions have put out radically different contract proposals.

The unions are proposing raises; the district is proposing a salary freeze.

"We are obviously in adversarial bargaining," said Karen Mahurin, the president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.

Administration and union representatives exchanged packets Feb. 15 at noon containing their first offers. Since that time, bargaining team members have been studying the lengthy documents and calculating what the proposals would mean for employee paychecks and the district's budget.

They meet at 10 this morning in the Borough Building for initial discussions; the meeting is open to the public.

Both paychecks and the budget, the educators maintain, are too small to satisfy everyone's needs. Beyond that, they agree on little so far.

Mahurin's union represents the district's secretaries, custodians, tutors, aides, nurses, technicians and food service workers. It is working with the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, the teachers' union, to negotiate new employee contracts with the district. The current three-year contracts expire at the end of June.

The teachers' union is proposing several avenues to put more money into teachers' pockets:

A 9 percent increase in the salary schedule numbers;

An additional 3 percent raise for teachers with graduate degrees;

Eliminating the employees' share of the health insurance payments;

"Longevity" payments of 4 percent more to employees who have worked at least 18 years in the district and hit the top of the current pay ladder; and

Retirement bonuses of $1,000 per year of employment for those who have served the district at least five years.

The KPESA is proposing a 10 percent across-the-board raise for its members, plus the health insurance and longevity benefits.

"Our raises have not kept up with inflation, have not kept pace with health insurance," Mahurin said.

Factoring in inflation, many support employees are making less now than they did 10 years ago. Many are single parents, and they work summer jobs to get through the year, she said.

"Our people, really, are not making ends meet."

How much such wage proposals would cost the district has yet to be determined. The district has been hammered by two decades of budget cuts and spends nearly all its operating budget on personnel costs. It is facing a deficit of about $1.4 million in its preliminary budget for next year. How much money it actually will have depends on yet-to-be-determined decisions from the Legislature, grants agencies and the borough assembly.

Todd Syverson, the district's assistant superintendent for administrative services, said the district team still is analyzing the union numbers and cannot yet comment on them.

He emphasized that, despite the fiscal constraints, the district wants a fair, competitive contract for its employee groups.

"As a district, we hold our employees in high regard," he said.

Hans Bilben, the president of the KPEA, said he is still working through the district's proposal.

In addition to the salary freeze, the district proposal curtails support for union activities and requires employees to give more advance notice if they are changing their plans, among other things.

But the main points of debate come down to money.

"It is hard to find something that is not monetary," Bilben said.

The three main points under discussion will be salaries, health care benefits and the unions' push to eliminate the "two-tier" salary schedule, which limits earnings of teachers hired after 1996. The second tier effects will become apparent next year, and about one third of district teachers ultimately may be affected, he said.

The health care costs are a problem for everyone in the district, he added.

"It is a huge issue that has really taken away any gains we have made in the past 10 years," he said.

The contract negotiations have gotten off to a rough start with people storming out of meetings and acrimonious comments about personalities.

"They are proposing a freeze for three years, is how we see it. And they are proposing massive roll-backs of employee rights," said Mahurin, who has been involved in district contract negotiations since 1981.

"It is the worst initial proposal -- as far as stripping us of unit rights -- I have ever seen."

But both district and union leaders expressed an interest in moving forward and expressed hope that today's meeting will mark the start of progress.

The union heads admitted that the preliminary proposals are just the first phase of the back-and-forth of negotiation.

"That's why they call them negotiations," Bilben said.

"I think there is some posturing on both sides."

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