School bargainers broach mediation

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District contract negotiations ended in a standstill Friday after six hours of discussion on how to proceed with compensation package bargaining.

The negotiating teams left the table without an agreed upon date for the next bargaining meeting and with talk of looking into mediation.

The district reached agreements with both the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association on several outstanding non-financial contract points, including workers' compensation, professional leave and notification of job openings.

Most of the day, however, was spent reviewing the unions' and district's positions on salaries and benefit packages.

The district started by presenting an interactive spreadsheet to illustrate how any changes to current compensation numbers would affect the district on the whole.

District negotiating team spokesperson Joe Arness said that the purpose of the presentation was to open the door to to a cooperative effort to pin down numbers.

The plan didn't work.

Union representatives said the spreadsheet was informative, but that they felt the district was still trying to balance its budget with employee compensation alone.

"The KPESA believes the money is out there," said Buck George, a district custodian and spokesperson for the KPESA negotiating team. "You don't have to balance everything on the backs of employees."

"The perception can be there all it wants," Arness said. "The money is not there."

George said the district had come up with other viable budget-balancing options which should be explored more -- specifically closing schools and cutting back extracurricular activities.

KPESA president Karen Mahurin jumped in, however, saying that the union does not have an official position on either option.

According to a report produced by superintendent Donna Peterson earlier in the year, neither option would be worth the small amount of money saved.

Unions also argued that the district needed to be more concerned about its ability to attract and retain new employees.

"We are no longer competitive in salaries, moving expenses and stipends," said KPEA negotiating team member Tim Peterson. To that end, he said he supported any new money that would go into teachers' pockets.

As the day went on, the conversations broke down further.

Around noon, Arness asked if the KPESA felt the discussions had reached an impasse.

"To be perfectly fair, our associations have to accept some culpability for this," responded George. "For the last few years, we have put our own needs below the needs of kids."

But, George said, he didn't understand how the district could simultaneously support collaboration and an impasse.

"The associations requested a mediator several months ago," Arness replied. "We thought we were acquiescing to your previous request."

The KPESA rejected the idea.

The teams spent much of the afternoon debating who should submit the next proposal and breaking into closed-door caucuses to confer.

"We know you have in mind a certain number of dollars you're willing to place toward salaries and benefits," KPEA spokesperson Dave Larson told the district team. "We would like you to make a proposal to us in regards to those numbers instead of just discussing this."

"If I were to say, 'Give us your rock-bottom proposal,' would you?" asked Arness. "I don't think so."

"You are on the side of the table that has the information on what the budget can afford for the salaries and benefits we believe we earn every day," Larson countered.

The teams did not exchange a single compensation package proposal Friday and are still working from opening offers.

By the end of the afternoon, the KPEA asked the teams to start planning the next negotiating sessions and to set up a tentative date for mediation.

Though district team member Deborah Germano pointed out that scheduling mediation implied no hope for the discussions, the district agreed to look into the process for finding a mediator.

The teams will likely meet again later in the summer, but schedule conflicts prevented them from immediately agreeing on a date. While all parties officially supported continued work toward reaching an agreement, most team members and observers agreed during break times that the process was headed for mediation.

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