Contract negotiations resume for Kenai teachers

Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- Contract negotiations are set to resume Saturday for Kenai Peninsula teachers.

The district 700 teachers and 500 support staffers are working without a contract.

Negotiations were supposed to wrap up this summer, but the talks were punctuated with accusations of unfair labor practices. The two sides in the dispute last sat down May 31.

Administrators and teachers at the Peninsula school district say classrooms from Tyonek to Soldotna have been functioning normally, despite the lack of an agreement.

''Things look terrific, so that's really a credit to our professionals that work here,'' superintendent Donna Peterson said.

Teachers say the district launched talks in February by bringing in a boorish, antagonistic chief negotiator. He has since been replaced. Later, the administration learned that a few teachers had breached district e-mail security and may have passed sensitive tactical discussions to union leaders.

Both sides recently filed unfair labor practices charges. In mid August, the teacher's union took the unprecedented step of filing a lawsuit in Superior Court seeking an injunction to disentangle its leader, Hans Bilben, from the e-mail fuss.

Bilben is on probation and cannot use the district's Internet connection, a penalty for his alleged involvement in the e-mail incident.

When the union filed its suit, it argued that the district was seizing on the e-mail breach as an excuse to weaken or possibly fire Bilben. According to the union, Bilben was only marginally involved.

He was given hard copies of the e-mail and forwarded the stack to the district's network administrator, which was what he was supposed to do, the lawsuit claims. The e-mail was never shown to members of union bargaining teams.

Bilben, a vocational education and applied physics teacher, was elected to lead the Kenai Peninsula Education Association this year and pledged to accept no more concessions, said Cathy Carrow, the union's vice president.

Teachers have accepted pay cuts since the mid-1980s as the district has struggled to balance its budget amid rising expenses and flat state funding. This year, under Bilben's leadership, the union is asking for a 9 percent pay raise.

''He's speaking for the group when he says we can't afford to take a substandard contract again,'' Carrow said.

The district has filed a response to the union's lawsuit, seeking to have it thrown out of court.

Gary Whitely, assistant superintendent for instruction, described this round of talks as ''one of the most difficult ones in memory.''

''From the administration and School Board's position, it has to do with not being able to offer as much money as we could because of the funding situation,'' he said. ''I think a lot of it is frustration, some of it misdirected.''

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