Teacher and support staff unions announced Wednesday that Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees cast a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Donna Peterson.
The vote came in response to frustrations over ongoing contract negotiations for members of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.
According to a joint press release from the two associations, 784 teachers and support employees participated in the secret ballot vote, and more than 88 percent voted that they had no confidence in the superintendent's handling of the negotiation process. The district employs about 1,150 teachers and support employees -- meaning 60 percent of the total staff cast no-confidence votes.
Though the vote has no legal significance, KPEA president Hans Bilben said it is the employees' way of voicing dissatisfaction over the negotiation process. The district has been bargaining with the associations for about eight months. Teams decided Friday to bring in a federal mediator to help resolve the contract dispute.
"I think it's just a statement from the employees that they have no confidence in the way Dr. Peterson has handled negotiations," Bilben said. "I want to make clear that this was not a statement about Donna Peterson's leadership abilities. It's about the direction she has taken negotiations. We're dealing with negotiations."
KPESA president Terri Woodward went a step further, though.
"We feel that even though the (district) bargaining team says they have the power to make decisions, we don't believe by their actions that's true," Woodward said. "Everything is run by her before anything is signed. I've felt like that all the way from the beginning."
Woodward said that, to her, the vote was an attempt to replace Peterson as superintendent, though she does not believe that will happen.
"There is no impact," she said. "I don't believe the school board will respond or react except to praise her."
Bilben said that the difference of opinion between the two associations is probably reflective of the different pay scale proposals the district presented last week.
"Theirs is a different situation. The certified (employee) proposal included an increase. The classified staff was offered 0 percent (the first year)," he said. "The situation in (the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District) pitted the certified versus the classified. I think there's a bit of that here, too."
The associations cited a number of reasons for the vote, including the drawn-out bargaining schedule and the district's initial proposal of a salary freeze. The association's press release also cited the memory of the district's "hired gun," Richard Putney, who was a source of conflict early in the process. Putney was the district's team spokesperson and human resources director. He left the district in February and was replaced on the bargaining team by school board member Joe Arness.
"There's a lot of animosity in these buildings," Woodward said. "The memory of Richard Putney, the workload, the way the school board looks at employees. The animosity is building.
The school board and district administration, however, have acknowledged that the bargaining process has faced problems, but contend that this vote will not solve anything.
Peterson was in Anchorage Wednesday and unavailable for comment on the vote.
Gary Whiteley, assistant superintendent of instruction, said, "The confidence level in the administration and central office of the superintendent is unwavering."
In a written response, school board president Dr. Nels Anderson added, "Three weeks ago, the school board unanimously nominated Dr. Peterson for consideration as the Alaska Superintendent of the Year. Dr. Peterson has done an outstanding job of leading the district down the road of academic excellence. The board proudly supports her leadership."
Anderson also wrote that the vote was "unprofessional and nonconstructive."
"This is simply another media blitz by the associations and NEA (National Education Assocation) Alaska to attempt to downgrade an outstanding leader in an effort to achieve an unrealistic economic gain," he wrote. "...The ultimate irony here is that the negotiations process is with the school board and therefore attacks upon Dr. Peterson are misplaced."
Added Assistant Superintended Todd Syverson, "This is truly unfortunate and we're disappointed. But we're hopeful that mediation will bring these negotiation issues to an end in the near future."
Whiteley also noted that contract conflicts between districts and their employees are not exclusive to the Kenai Peninsula.
"Washington state has five or six districts on strike," he said. "The associations there were careful not to assign blame to the administration because it's a funding problem for Washington. This is counterproductive.
"I think we have a lot of issues. Assigning blame for the lack of financial resources in the district is misdirected frustration," he added. "We acknowledge there is frustration in negotiations, but we don't think this is particularly helpful."
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