Saturday's contract talks between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and its employees were cordial and productive. But the hard parts lie ahead.
Negotiators from the administration and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association are working on new contracts to replace the current, three-year contracts expiring at the end of June.
After a rocky start in January, the talks began progressing Feb. 22, when school board member Joe Arness replaced district Human Resources Director Richard Putney as spokesperson for the administrative negotiators.
"The contract we are talking about is not your contract," Arness said to the union negotiators across the table from him at the beginning of the session.
"It's not the district's contract. It is everyone's contract."
He spoke directly to David Larson, the Kenai Central High School teacher who speaks for the KPEA team representing the teachers.
"When this is over, Mr. Larson, I will be able to look you in the eye. ... I am not a guy who likes to play games."
One major point discussed but not resolved Saturday was the term of the new contracts. The employees are seeking one-year deals; the district wants three-year commitments.
Larson said a one-year contract would allow for flexibility if the peninsula economy turns around in ways more favorable for schools and if the Legislature changes school funding next session.
"The Legislature is in election-year mode, and the funding is up in the air," he said of the current session.
Bills Juneau lawmakers pass this spring will determine the amount of money the district will have for next year, and educators statewide have expressed concerns that the mood in Juneau hints at slim pickings for schools.
Arness countered that the district wants to avoid starting negotiations anew next winter.
"It is a disruptive and divisive procedure," he said.
A decision on that matter and others were deferred until later. Both sides signed off tentative agreements on items both sides agreed to hold over from the last contract.
Todd Syverson, the district's assistant superintendent, said the session went well. Both sides are still outlining their proposals and deciding which questions need researching.
"We are going to have to cost out the ramifications of various proposals," he said.
The three biggest problems for talks later this spring are salaries, health benefit costs and the two-tiered salary system begun in 1996.
Employees want raises, but the district is offering a wage freeze, citing flat-lined revenue and rising costs. Health care costs are escalating faster than inflation, and neither party wants to get stuck footing that bill. The two-tier system is unpopular with employees, paying recent hires less than senior colleagues doing identical work.
When the talks will reach those crucial issues is unknown.
"We still have quite a way to go," Syverson said.
The next negotiating sessions are scheduled for Monday for the KPESA, representing the support workers, and Wednesday for the KPEA. Both meetings will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Soldotna City Hall on Birch Street.
All sessions are open to the public. In addition, Internet users can watch Web casts of the meetings at www.cookinletcourier.com.
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