Educators sticking to hours

District, associations working toward solutions as arbitration nears

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Employees throughout the Kenai Penin-sula Borough School District are "working to rule" this week in a show of solidarity to support resolution to ongoing contract negotiations.

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Educa-tion Association and Kenai Peninsula Edu-cation Support Association will work only their contracted hours this week. That means teachers, for example, will arrive at school 30 minutes before classes begin and leave 30 minutes after classes end. They will not take home papers to be graded, open doors to students during lunch or work in any way during contracted breaks, said Henry Anderson, an organizer with the associations and teacher at North Star Elementary School.

"It may cause a little hurt for some kids and families, but I'd rather a small hurt now than a larger hurt to the whole community with a strike later," he said.

The goal of the work-to-rule week is to raise community awareness for the need of a resolved contract, Anderson said. In addition to working contract hours only, association members also will picket at several sites around the peninsula to rally community support for the cause.

Teachers and support staff employees in the district have been working without a contract since July 1. Bargaining teams from the associations and district have been meeting to negotiate new contracts for the employees since early 2002. The teams met repeated setbacks throughout the process, though, and in November, a federal mediator also failed to resolve the issues. The contracts are slated to go before a federal arbitrator March 12 to 14. If the associations are not satisfied with the outcome of arbitration, members have the option of striking. A tentative strike date has been set for the first week of May.

The primary points of contention are salaries and health insurance benefits for the district's employees. The district has offered an increase of both, but the associations insist it is not enough to catch employees up to inflation.

'We're trying to get it settled. If we can settle before arbitration, it would benefit everybody in the district.'

-- Hans Bilben, Kenai Peninsula Education Association president

Despite the district's claims of intense budget constraints, the associations say there is money to be spent.

"It's a matter of priorities," said Buck George, vice president of the KPESA and a custodian at Soldotna High School. "We used to be 85 percent of the budget, now we're 78 percent.

"As the district has saved money, they've moved it off to spend in other areas, which have been priorities. Now it's time to make employees the priority again."

George -- and a recent fact sheet prepared by the associations -- also said the district has been playing the "shell game" with money for years. Though the fact sheet is designed to present ideas of how the district could redirect its resources, it is based primarily on the 2002-03 budget, rather than the 2003-04 budget the district currently is working on. George said the associations rely on past budgets because they already are final and have been audited.

Among the concerns with the district budgets, George said he believes the district "double counts" some of its salary expenses.

The district generally talks only about its operating budget rather than discussing the additional money it receives in grants, he said.

"Sometimes the budget shows the funding for everyone coming out of the general fund," George said. "But then you go over to the grants and find classified and certified salaries there as well."

Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, frequently explains in budget presentations that the district does not rely on grants for funding because they are not guaranteed from year to year.

George also noted that in past years' budgets, the district has had an "undesignated-unallocated" fund that he finds suspicious.

"The undesignated-unallocated fund at the beginning of the year (last year) shows nothing," he said. "But we're finding thousands, tens of thousands was moved out of that budget. So somewhere, they must have moved money in there.

"It's another part of the shell game."

At a recent budget work session with the school board, Douglas said unallocated staff funds are reserved for an emergency situation, such as if a class winds up with 40 students and an extra teacher needs to be brought in. The entire unallocated budget is on the cutting board for the fiscal year 2004 budget.

The district also has repeatedly insisted there is no "hidden pot" of money.

Despite the differences in opinion, however, members of all the teams said they are making process with the contract negotiations.

For the past two or three weeks, the spokespersons for each team have met informally to work toward a resolution.

"Initially, the purpose of getting together was to see if we couldn't get a few issues off the table," said assistant superintendent Todd Syverson. "But then some positive movement took place."

The full bargaining groups plan to meet again Thursday evening in a final attempt to resolve the contracts prior to arbitration.

"We're hopeful we won't need arbitration to bring this to a close," Syverson said.

George agreed.

"I do believe we're close," he said.

"We're down to the brass tacks of it now," he added, referring to the outstanding salary and health benefit issues.

"We're trying to get it settled," said KPEA president Hans Bilben, a teacher at Skyview High School. "If we can settle before arbitration, it would benefit everybody in the district."

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