HOMER -- Cold fingers, curious stares and even a moose wandering through their picket line didn't deter as many as 90 teachers and education staff from bringing their message to the street Tuesday night in Homer.
Waving signs that read "Honk if You Love Children," "Stand up for Schools" and "Quality Costs," teachers and organizers said the rally at Homer High School was meant to show support for the two bargaining teams negotiating new contracts with the district. Both the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association are in negotiations, and so far, the unions and the Kenai Peninsula School District proposals are far apart.
Many of the union negotiators who attended the rally said the district's preliminary proposal, which includes a wage freeze and a three-year contract, is unacceptable. The school employees have asked for a 9 percent wage increase and one-year deals.
A modified district offer has since also been rejected. (See story, page A-1.)
"When we see the offer the district proposed, it makes me think of the medieval period of history in Europe when serfs were asked to plow larger fields, but (the landlords) took away their horses," said Dave Larson, a Kenai Central High School teacher and KPEA negotiator. "That may be a dramatic description, but I don't see it any other way. Your team represents you, the best educators and best support people in Alaska. We believe all of us deserve to be treated with respect."
Maggie Corbisier, a negotiating team member and Homer Middle School speech therapist, noted a 1988 award for excellence in education mounted in the Homer High School commons.
"Many of those teachers are still here," she said. "The excellence in education is still here. But given the cuts and given the rollbacks, I think we would be hard-pressed to win this award now."
KPEA President Hans Bilben noted results from the association's online survey. When asked if they are currently seeking work elsewhere, 19 percent of the 441 peninsula school employees surveyed said they are looking.
"That doesn't say much for this district," Bilben said, adding that when he started working for the district nearly 20 years ago, it was a desirable place to work. "Back in those days, this was the place you wanted to get to."
Bilben also said that 46 percent of those surveyed said if the contract doesn't meet their liking, they are planning to leave the district.
Several negotiators told the crowd to gear up for a long period of negotiation, and even the possibility of a strike.
"We would like to have a contract by the end of the year, but at the rate this is going, it's looking somewhat questionable," Bilben said.
McNeil Canyon and West Homer Elementary teacher Atz Kilcher finished off the night with the negotiation team's new rally song. School employees wrote letters to legislators during the meeting, voicing their support for education funding. The district has cited its own budget woes due to limited state funding as the reason for the current and proposed wage freeze, and employee negotiators said their preliminary contract proposal would probably require additional state funding for the district.
"Legislators need to not only bridge the funding gap, they need to bridge the education funding gap," said Eileen Clark, organizer of the Homer rally.
Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.
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