A crowd of school employees gathered Saturday in front of the Borough Building for a union rally, complete with pickets and speakers.
About 150 people showed up for two hours to eat hot dogs, discuss the schools' problems and drum up support for the union positions at contract talks.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District talks were going on simultaneously downstairs in the borough assembly chamber.
The Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, the unions that represent the district's support staff and teachers, organized the gathering. They described it as "informational picketing."
"It is to show the solidarity of our membership," said Hans Bilben, the president of the KPEA.
Participants' signs called for more school funding and emphasized the value of children. Many present brought families to the event, and youngsters joined the adults carrying placards by the roadside and waving at the drivers honking as they passed by.
Bilben distanced the event from rumors that employees may strike next fall if they cannot squeeze more funding from the district, which is battling two decades of eroding revenue.
"It has nothing to do with the S word," he said of the rally.
The sun was bright and people enjoyed the camaraderie, but the biting wind reminded everyone of the grim realities underlying the gathering.
"We are here to show support for our side," said Dennis Spindler, the head custodian at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna and one of the workers who showed up.
Spindler came to the rally with students from his family and neighborhood.
He told them that the struggle, at its base, is about them and their future.
"Everyone needs to face the economic facts, and Juneau needs to allocate more money," he said. "Most people don't have a clue what goes on inside a school."
The organizers brought in a variety of speakers to address the crowd. They included Soldotna Mayor (and Skyview teacher) David Carey, Kasilof parent volunteer Kacey Cooper and union activists.
Loren Hollers from the Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers union at Agrium spoke, as did three senior officials from National Education Associ-ation affiliates in Anchorage and the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, where school contract talks already have reached an impasse this year.
Although the main messages at the rally focused on the importance of public schooling to the next generation and the need for more funding to maintain quality, many present criticized the district administration for the way it has handled both cutbacks and the current negotiations.
Karen Mahurin, the president of the KPESA, told the crowd that the contracts the district is proposing strip employees of their rights, and that friction in the contract talks goes beyond money to issues of respect.
Some employees present opined that cuts past and present have gouged into classroom performance more than necessary. Among the placards was at least one asking, "What are KPBSD priorities?"
People line up for hot dogs during Saturday's rally as contract negotiations continue in the borough building behind them.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
The final speaker, Dave Silva, who teaches at the Connections program, singled out Superinten-dent Donna Peterson, Assistant Superintendent Todd Syverson and Human Resources Director Richard Putney for criticism.
Syverson said he and others were too busy downstairs to watch the rally and hear the particulars.
Peterson said she supported the employees' get-together.
"It was appropriate," she said. "Their message, I believe, is they are strong and they are united.
"We know that, and we appreciate all they do for us and our students."
Bilben admitted that the time and place of the rally put pressure on the district's administrative negotiating team.
"Well, obviously we would like to let them know we are serious about our proposals," he said.
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