Negotiating teams for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and employee unions end a three-month hiatus this week, heading back to the bargaining table Thursday and Friday to work toward new contracts for teachers and support staff members. The meetings come despite a series of legal complaints tossed back and forth between parties.
The teams, who did not meet during the summer due to scheduling conflicts, already have settled almost all nonfinancial contract points, but issues such as pay scales and benefits brought talks to a standstill at the last meeting May 31.
Members of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association are seeking better employee compensation and repeatedly have insisted that the district needs to "stop balancing the budget on the backs of employees." The district maintains there simply is not enough money to give the workers everything they want.
While some predict a quick downward spiral to the talks, union and district negotiators have a more positive outlook.
KPEA President Hans Bilben told the Homer News that the recent settlement of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough teachers' contract may set a precedent for the district.
"We believe it has set the bar," Bilben said. "With Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Mat-Su, I think we're the last on the road system to settle."
The Mat-Su agreement, Bilben said, contained a $3,000 raise at all levels of the pay scale, as well as contributions to health care costs.
District Superintendent Donna Peterson said a comparison between the Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula districts is not entirely accurate. For example, she said, the Kenai Peninsula district invests money to keep smaller class sizes.
"All districts are not equal," she said. "You have to look at what a district has to offer and what a district can do. All the factors have to be weighed other than salary."
Both Peterson and Bilben agreed, however, that the teams were hoping for a quick, positive resolution to the contract dilemma.
"Our hope is to get back to the table in a much less contentious atmosphere," Bilben said. "I'm going to be optimistic on this one."
If a resolution does not come quickly, though, the teams will have to decide how to proceed with the bargaining process. Teams can choose whether to continue bargaining or to bring in a mediator to help resolve the issue.
The teams have encountered a number of problems since bargaining began in January, including an alleged e-mail security breach in April. The district discovered that unauthorized employees had intercepted e-mails between senior administrators and school board members that reportedly related to the district's bargaining positions. The controversy led to several legal actions that have yet to be resolved.
The district conducted an internal investigation that led to the discipline of three teachers. The names of those teachers were not released as the discipline was considered a confidential personnel issue. Bilben recently filed a lawsuit against the district for the discipline, though. He asserted that the district went too far in revoking his e-mail privileges -- which he said are necessary for him to do his job as a teacher and association president -- and in placing him on probation.
The lawsuit was filed in early August, and the district has drafted a motion to dismiss, according to Gary Whitely, assistant superintendent of instruction. Whitely said the motion has not been filed yet, because the district wants to meet with the plaintiffs and try to resolve the matter outside of court.
Joe Josephson, the attorney representing Bilben and other members of the KPEA in the lawsuit, said an agreement may be forthcoming that will settle much of the legal crossfire between the teams.
"There are elements in both camps that see it is in the public's best interest to bury the hatchet with a mutual spirit of give and take," he said.
Late Tuesday, however, the KPEA announced that Bilben and other teachers named in the lawsuit had filed a motion in Superior Court seeking a preliminary injunction against the school district.
"The plaintiffs asked the court to enjoin (prohibit) the district's exclusion of President Bilben from the district e-mail system," said a press release drafted by the KPEA.
The next step in the process, according to the press release, will be a hearing to determine whether the motion is valid -- and whether Bilben's e-mail access will be restored pending resolution of the lawsuit.
More information on the motion and coming hearing were not available by the Clarion's deadline.
The district forwarded information on one of the teachers to the Soldotna Police Department for a criminal investigation. The police did not find evidence of criminal actions in that case, but forwarded the information to the Kenai Police Department to investigate a second teacher. The police have completed that investigation, and the case is under review with the district attorney.
The district filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the associations, claiming the bargaining teams gained an illegal advantage by reading the confidential e-mails. The complaint was filed with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency and investigator Jean Ward deemed the case has merit -- meaning if the district's allegations are found to be true, the associations may face legal or financial consequences. Ward said a hearing will be set as soon as possible but could not give a specific time frame.
The associations filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the district, claiming it has created a negative bargaining atmosphere, stalled the process and gone outside its authority by presenting association membership inaccurate data about the negotiations. Ward has yet to complete a preliminary investigation of the case and again said it will be done "as soon as possible."
Despite these conflicts, the teams have expressed repeated commitment to resolving the contract dispute.
The old teacher and support staff contracts expired June 30 and employees are working under "dynamic status quo" -- a rollover of the old contract.
The teams do have the option of bringing in outside help to resolve the matter.
It would work like this:
The teams can mutually declare an impasse and move on to mediation. A mediator would meet with the teams and try to negotiate a contract for them -- a process that could last anywhere from five minutes to 30 days.
If the mediation process fails, the teams could move on to arbitration. The arbitrator would look at all the facts in the case and come up with a recommended solution. The solution would not, however, be binding. It would go before association membership for a vote.
An affirmative vote would approve the contract and end the dispute. A negative vote could lead to a strike, though both the district and association leadership have indicated a strike is a worst-case scenario.
Homer News reporter Carey James contributed to this story.
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