Despite snags, school talks to continue today

Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2002

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will return to the bargaining table with teacher and support staff unions today, but the darker side of the negotiation process still is casting a shadow on the proceedings.

Members of the district negotiating team will work with the Kenai Peninsula Education Association this morning from 9 to noon and with the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association this afternoon from 1 to 4 in the borough assembly chambers. The goal is to complete a new contract for the district employees before the current one expires June 30.

The parties say they are coming to the table in good faith with high hopes for the process.

"Certainly the atmosphere is good and the conversation is solid. I hope to continue on the path that's been set," said district superintendent Donna Peterson. "We accomplished a lot at the last session. My hope is that we continue that process."

KPEA president Hans Bilben agreed.

"I'm optimistic that when our bargaining teams go back to the table this week, we'll be able to get closer to a just settlement," he said in a written statement Tuesday.

But despite the positive words, past snags still threaten to entangle the process.

n Soldotna police are investigating a teacher from the KPEA over an alleged e-mail security breach at the district.

Though Soldotna Sgt. Tod McGillivray initially said he hoped to have the investigation completed last week, Det. Duane Kant said Wednesday that the matter is still under investigation.

The individual under suspicion is being investigated for breaking into the district computer system and intercepting confidential e-mails between school board members and senior administrators last month. The individual could face charges of criminal use of a computer -- a class C felony that could carry a fine of up to $50,000 and up to five years in jail.

An internal district investigation also deemed two other teachers, including Bilben, involved in the scandal. The district says that these teachers were given access to the confidential e-mails, which allegedly contained crucial information on the district's bargaining positions.

The Homer News reported that Bilben said the printouts did cross his desk, but he threw them away without ever looking at them.

Despite the union's assurances that the negotiation process has not been tainted, the district filed an unfair labor practices suit against the KPEA with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency earlier this month, and the KPEA has until Monday to file its response.

Investigator Jean Ward said Wednesday she expects to hear from the KPEA any day, and that the union's response has not yet been filed. She added that the response may be confidential or may be public record, depending on the way KPEA files.

KPEA representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in previous conversations, the union has maintained that the integrity of the negotiations was not breached by the distribution of intercepted e-mails.

Ward will collect evidence in the complaint and evaluate the facts against the law, she said.

If the investigation yields probable cause that the law was broken, Ward will work with the district and KPEA to resolve the matter informally. If that cannot be done, the process would move on to a hearing, she said.

Ward said the time frame for cases varies, but the complaint has been assigned a high priority.

"I don't anticipate that it will be on my desk for a matter of months," she said, "more like a matter of weeks."

And then there is the money situation.

The district recently received $2.1 million in state Learning Opportunity Grants that the KPEA and KPESA hope can be used to free up money for contracts.

However, Peterson said, the unions may be overestimating the power of that new money.

"$2.1 million -- it's nothing to sneeze at, but the Learning Opportunity Grants come with strings," Peterson said, explaining that it is supposed to be used for remediation services and preparing students for the high school graduation equivalency exam.

She said that the unions are not painting an accurate picture of the money situation when they imply it will help with salary negotiations.

"That is soft money that comes into the district for one year only," she said. "If it is used for salaries, it needs to be here this year, next year and the following year."

Money will continue to be one of the ongoing points of contention with district negotiations. Teachers and support staff are seeking cost-of-living salary increases and more district contributions for health benefits.

The district, however, wants to hold the line with salaries due to budget restraints.

The bargaining teams have agreed to put all financial contract matters on the back burner until all other points are decided. With only a month left in the existing contract, it is unclear when the teams will reach the financial portion of the negotiations.

They have, however, tentatively set aside Friday for a continuation of bargaining talks.

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