School talks still stalled

Posted: Monday, April 15, 2002

With offers on the table that could tie up monetary aspects of the schools negotiation, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District bargaining team met with negotiators from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association Saturday morning to try to close a deal. But after a debate over staff expense, and even an amendment to the district offer, no compromise could be met.

On March 29, The district drafted a "package" proposal that provided for, among other things, an average teacher salary increase of between $5,500 and $6,000.

Other money items in the district package included eliminating the two-tier salary schedule; increased initial health care contribution to $500 per full-time employee; and experience salary steps, then steps and 1.5 percent increases for the second year of the contract, and steps and 2 percent increases for year three -- all to total approximately $5 million over the three-year contract.

The associations responded the next day with their own packages estimated in excess of $10 million annually. Primary on the monetary requests was $700 per full-time employee in district health care contributions. The offers were to stand until 10 a.m. Saturday, but both sides rejected the other's packages early in the morning, returning negotiations to a deadlock.

"Are you sure you don't want to come to your senses?" district spokesperson Joe Arness jokingly asked the labor teams.

The associations asked to review individual items and focus first on health care coverage.

But, before this discussion could gather much momentum, Arness opened debate about inflation's effect on salaries, responding to a claim of cost of living cutting into pay.

"According to Neal Fried (Alaska Department of Labor economist), the cost of living in Anchorage increased 19.5 percent in the last 10 years," he said.

He said district figures showed the growing cost to the district per teacher between 1991 and 2001. These numbers showed a starting teacher's salary and benefits cost the district $33,233 in 1991, and $43,185 after 10 years. This reflected a 30 percent increase as compared to a 10 percent cost of living allowance. This same teacher, upon receiving "lane" change (adding 18 or more college credits to a teaching certification) would be paid $58,351, a 76 percent increase.

A teacher with 10 years service cost the district $53,969 in 1991 and $72,403 in 2001, a 34 percent increase as compared to a 14 percent cost of living increase.

Association leaders rebutted the district's claims, however, saying the numbers were skewed and did not reflect actual take-home dollars. KPESA President Karen Mahurin said what employees cost the district was much different from what support staffers received in comparison to what they paid for benefits.

"If you look at what an average, eight-hour (employee's) salary increase has been over what they have paid for health insurance costs, retirement costs, etc., and look at whether they are taking home the same amount of money they took home in 1991 or less, I think you may have a more accurate picture of what we're looking at on our side of the table," Mahurin said.

KPEA President Hans Bilben said further investigation would show where district employees accepted a pay cut prior to 1991 to help the district.

"Anybody can work with numbers," he said. "If you go back to 1987, teachers realized the school district was in trouble and agreed to accept a pay cut to help out, with the understanding that it would be made up. They never did."

Bilben showed where, after health care costs were deducted, district employees enjoyed only a 1.8 percent increase after 10 years from 1992 to 2002.

The district team called for an hour-long caucus, with Arness promising to return with solutions that would please the labor teams.

"I think I've got some stuff that you're going to want to see," Arness said.

When the bargain teams reconvened, the district offered three additional changes to that proposal:

Increased district health insurance contribution by 10 percent up to $550.

Salary schedules with additional increases for "top of the cell" teachers who had otherwise capped out the pay structure.

A reopener in the third year of the contract (2004-05) if the per student base allocation increases by $190 between now and November 2003.

"We have been listening to your advertisements," Arness said. "We know $190 on the base unit is the magic number."

Assistant Superintendent Todd Syverson cautioned that to meet these goals would require cooperation from all parties involved.

"It's critical that the district and the associations work together to get that $190 that we're talking about," he said. "What we've put out on the table for year two and year three, we have to have more money to be able to fund those or we're right back into pink-slipping ... we're right back into cutting."

The district team's expectations, however, fell short of their mark as KPEA and KPESA bargaining leaders rejected the additions to the proposal.

"We're not interested," said KPESA spokesperson Buck George. "I'm also a little bit upset because I thought that earlier we agreed that we would go back to where we were and start working through proposals and insurance ... that you guys would take another hour and basically stall these talks some more. We felt that this had been stalled long enough, and we wanted to take some action."

The district team is scheduled to meet next with the KPEA team on April 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will meet with the KPESA team the following day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The location will be announced.

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