KPEA says letter to teachers violates rules of negotiations

School district memo prompts labor complaint

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2002

The Kenai Peninsula Education Association is filing an unfair labor practices complaint against the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District -- marking yet another snag in ongoing contract negotiations for the district's teachers and support staff.

The complaint, which follows one filed by the district against KPEA earlier this spring, will be investigated by the Alaska Labor Relations Agency. Negotiations are not expected to continue until after the agency has resolved the situation.

KPEA expected to file the complaint with the agency by late Thursday afternoon or early Monday. It is too soon to determine a timeline for the agency's investigation, but the district's complaint against the union is still under investigation. It was filed in mid-May.

According to KPEA vice president Cathy Carrow, the union's complaint is being filed in response to a memo teachers received from the district earlier this month.

The memo, dated July 2 and signed by superintendent Donna Peterson and assistant superintendent Todd Syverson, contained information about employees' current contract status with the district. When the official contracts expired June 30, the terms rolled over for the length of the negotiation process. The first half of the letter explained that employees will continue to receive wage increases as detailed in the expired contract.

The second half of the letter, however, provided specific figures pertaining to an offer the district made.

The letter states: "On April 13, 2002, the district made the following offer: elimination of the two tier salary schedule; initial contribution to health care costs increased to $500 per full time employee; experience steps for year one, steps and 1.5 percent for year two and steps and 2 percent for year three."

It then provides a table with sample wage increases over three years.

Carrow said that in itself violates labor relations law.

"Labor law is pretty clear that once the bargaining process begins, the school district cannot have contact with (association) members about bargaining," she said. The association leadership is supposed to be the membership's only source of information about what is going on at the bargaining table.

Furthermore, Carrow said, KPEA considers the information about the offer misleading.

She said that, as the district explained it, the increases add up to a 3.5 percent raise over three years. A table of sample pay increases in the district letter, however, indicates that employees actually would receive 9 to 18 percent increases over the three-year period, because the district is taking into account not only yearly increases in the wage tables, but also individual employees' movement up the experience ladder.

But even more important than the confusing numbers, Carrow said, is the fact that the offer the district outlines in its letter to employees is not on the table for association bargaining teams.

Though the district and unions are referring to the proposal as the "April 13 offer," it was actually made on March 29, according to Clarion records. The proposal indicated that association teams must agree to the offer by April 13 or the proposal would expire.

The associations did not meet that deadline.

At the last round of contract negotiations in late May, the KPEA negotiating team asked the district what it considered its "last best offer." The district said the April 13 offer was off the table, and the only proposal up for consideration was the original offer -- which included complete salary freezes.

"There's quite a discrepancy between what the district gave the bargaining unit members and what we're seeing at the table," Carrow said. "Our only option was to file papers with the appropriate agency."

The district, however, maintains that no bargaining laws were violated.

Peterson and Syverson were both unavailable for comment, but Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Gary Whiteley said the claim is unfounded.

"The district doesn't think it crosses the line," he said. "The superintendent certainly has the right and responsibility to communicate with employees."

The complaint is the most recent in a series of snags hampering the negotiation process for new contracts for teachers and support staff members in the district.

Negotiations, which began in January, got off to a rocky start when teams had trouble agreeing on ground rules. The situation got worse when the association objected to their treatment by the district's human resources director, Richard Putney.

School board member Joe Arness replaced Putney as the district's negotiations spokesperson in February, and the skies looked clear for a brief interlude.

Then, in April, the district discovered that e-mails between senior administrators and school board members had been intercepted. Fearing the integrity of the negotiation process, bargaining came to a halt. The district internally disciplined three teachers in the matter, forwarded the investigation to area law enforcement and filed an unfair labor practices complaint against KPEA.

Negotiations continued despite the complaint, though, and the teams reached agreement on nearly all non-financial matters. When salary and benefit issues came up in June, though, the process slowed down again, almost reaching impasse. The teams agreed to meet again, but were unable to agree on a date over the summer.

Now it looks like negotiations may be slow to start even in the fall. KPEA may postpone returning to the bargaining table until the complaint has been resolved through the Alaska Labor Relations Agency.

According to Carrow, the letter was not the first time the district has violated labor law.

"There were a number of times earlier that we chose not to file. This one was out of the gray area," she said. "It's like playground taunting. You can ignore it, ignore it, ignore it, but eventually you have to stand up and say no. That's where we got."

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