"Strike" is a word on many people's lips lately -- mostly in the form of a question.
With Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teacher and support staff contracts expiring today, superintendent Donna Peterson said many people are wondering what will happen if district employees choose to strike.
"People keep asking me if we're going to hurry up and get this settled or if teachers are going to strike," Peterson said. "I keep telling them, there are all these steps first."
"A strike wouldn't even be legal at this point in time," echoed Kenai Peninsula Education Association president Hans Bilben.
No matter what happens with the contract in the long run, both said school definitely will open as scheduled in August.
In the meantime, when the contracts expire today, the district will go into what is called "dynamic status quo."
That means the current contract, including all existing language and experience-based pay increases, will simply roll over. The district can remain in dynamic status quo as long as the contract negotiation process lasts.
And it is a long, drawn-out process, Peterson said.
It works like this:
First, the district will continue bargaining with negotiating teams from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.
The bargaining process has been going on since January with no end in sight. Though the teams have tentatively agreed to most non-financial contract points, salary and benefit issues still are up in the air. At the last meeting May 31, the teams agreed to schedule at least one -- possibly two or three -- more day-long sessions. Because of scheduling conflicts, the date has yet to be set, but the teams will meet again, probably in September, Peterson said.
When they meet, the bargaining teams will have the opportunity to continue bargaining or to mutually agree to call an impasse.
If an impasse is reached, the process goes on to mediation. A mediator will meet with the teams and try to negotiate a contract for them.
"They could say there's nothing to be mediated," Peterson said. More likely, however, a mediator will try to work with the teams for up to 30 days.
If the mediation process fails, the teams move on to arbitration. In the past, the district has used binding arbitration, meaning all parties were obligated to accept the decision of the arbitrator. This year, however, the teams have agreed to non-binding arbitration. The decision of the arbitrator will go to association membership for a vote.
Then -- and only then -- can the association membership choose to strike.
Both Peterson and Bilben noted, however, that a strike is a last-option scenario in the distant future. All teams are working toward a mutually beneficial solution to the ongoing conflict, they said.
Still, the district does have a plan in case the situation goes all the way to a strike.
"We're trying to avoid it, but if the worst happens, we do have contingency plans," Peterson said.
Basically, she said, the hypothetical backup plan would be to make an emergency amendment to the school calendar.
In some school districts, schools remain open during a strike, using mostly substitute teachers. In those situations, teachers and staff are forced to choose whether to continue striking or to cross a picket line and go to work.
Here, however, there is not a large enough substitute base to keep schools open, Peterson said.
"If worse comes to worst, if every effort fails, we would have to close schools and cancel activities," and then find a way to make up the lost time later in the year, Peterson said.
Still, she reiterated, even if all the steps in the negotiation process fail, it will be much later in the school year.
"It's premature for us to say anything yet," Peterson said.
"School will start in the fall," added Bilben. "Negotiations will resume and hopefully they will bear fruit and we'll settle the agreement."
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