School board, unions reach agreement

Contract negotiations go on until 3 a.m., but arbitration, employee strike averted

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

Negotiating teams from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and its teacher and support staff associations reached a final-hour contract agreement early Friday morning, averting arbitration and a potential employee strike.

The teams met in a last-ditch effort Thursday to resolve the contract dispute between the district and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association. After 17 hours of intense negotiations, the teams came to an agreement around 3 a.m. Friday.

"I appreciate the way we've worked today," Maggie Corbisier, a member of the KPEA team and a teacher at Homer Middle School, told district team members in the early hours of the morning. "I appreciate what you have been able to give on to allow us to make gains.

"It's unfortunate we couldn't start out this way, but I thank you for the time you've put in today."

The teams have been working on the contract since January 2002 and have met challenges almost every step of the way, with personality conflicts, an alleged e-mail security breach, unfair labor practices complaints and a lawsuit marring the process.

Employees technically have been working without a contract since July 1, when the old contract expired. The teams declared impasse in September, and a federal mediator failed to resolve the issues in November. An arbitrator was scheduled to take over the contract dispute next week, and a potential employee strike was scheduled for early May.

Though a few legal issues -- including one unfair labor practices complaint and the lawsuit -- are still outstanding, team members said they were pleased to be finished with the brunt of the situation and to avoid costly arbitration.

Members of the associations still have to ratify the contracts -- probably in the next two weeks -- then the school board has to approve the contracts, as well.

Though both sides said the contracts weren't exactly what they were hoping for, team members said the contracts did offer a workable compromise, especially to the more controversial points such as salary schedules and health care.

The new contract provides a 2 percent salary increase each year for both associations. The contracts also eliminate tier two, a secondary pay schedule, which provides lower salaries for employees with comparable experience but less time in the district. The bottom level of the salary schedules for both associations also will disappear in the second year, meaning beginning wages will increase across the board.

In the health care portion of the contracts, the district agreed to increase its contributions throughout the contract term and to allow employee contributions to drop to $75 per month per employee from $100. If health care costs exceed the combined district and employee contributions, the district and employees will split the remaining costs in half.

The health care section also includes a "Juneau clause," which dictates that 10 percent of any additional funding from the state will go toward reducing health care payments, and a $20,000 designated fund to allow the district's health care committee to look for less expensive alternatives to the program.

Surprisingly, neither health care nor salaries were the final sticking point for teams Friday morning. Rather, it was a section in the KPEA contract requiring some noncontract working hours for teachers that held up the discussions. The old contract allowed building administrators to require attendance at school functions outside the work day up to two hours a week. The original intent of the section was to make sure teachers showed up for open houses and other occasional activities.

However, KPEA members said a few administrators had abused the rule, requiring two hours of excess work time every week. Teachers wanted the required time to decrease or to be more distinctly defined.

District team members, however, insisted it was necessary for schools to have some flexibility, especially as the district faces new challenges such as increased legislation on education practices.

Though teams passed proposals back and forth throughout the evening, neither team seemed willing to budge. Finally, a little after 2:30 a.m., the district conceded and agreed to limit the noncontract hours to a maximum of two hours per month.

"I had no idea this was going to be the last thing we agreed to," said Dan Walker, who was acting as spokesperson for KPEA in lieu of Dave Larson, who had a sore throat.

In addition to the contracts, the teams also agreed to a memorandum of understanding Friday morning. Because of the drawn-out bargaining process, the first year of the new three-year contract is nearly over. The MOA will change that, moving the the effective date on the contract from July 1, 2002, to July 1, 2003. It also will implement a retroactive one-year contract, complete with the 2 percent raises and new health care numbers, for the current year.

That means it will be about two years before the district and associations have to come back to the bargaining table to start over again.

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