The borough assembly chambers overflowed with teachers and support staff members wearing identical "Stand Up for Schools" T-shirts Monday night at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board meeting.
District employees turned out in droves for the semimonthly meeting to urge the board to settle ongoing contract negotiations.
Bargaining teams from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association and school district have been negotiating contracts since last year. They reached impasse last month, and the negotiations will go before a federal mediator Nov. 19 to 21.
Employees begged the board to settle contracts during the mediation process by giving teachers and support workers a raise, abandoning the second tier of the salary schedule and eliminating insurance co-pay. They also made clear that association members would not hesitate to strike early next year if contracts were not adequately settled.
"We as teachers are standing together. We have shown our professionalism. I hope the school board and current administration will show the same professionalism," said John Harro, a computer and technology teacher at Soldotna Middle School. "Just to show you how serious I am, I plan to go to Sweeney's, a local store, and buy a warm coat if necessary."
Harro was one of 18 district employees, other than association leadership members, who spoke at the meeting.
"Our salaries have not kept up with the cost of living," added Linda Ralston, a math teacher at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. "Do I want to strike? No. But I will exercise that right.
"Show us you value us. Give us a contract that compensates us as if we are important to the community, to the kids."
In addition to asking the board to grant employees better benefit packages, speakers at the meeting also railed against the "bad blood" that has developed between the district and association negotiating teams -- and between the district and its employees.
"The school board accuses me of unprofessional behavior. They were wrong to call me an unprofessional bad element in the community," said Skyview High School social studies teacher Dave Carey, who also is Soldotna mayor. "I feel betrayed."
David McCard, a sixth-grade teacher at Sterling Elementary, said, "I feel uncomfortable because if one side is telling the truth, the other is lying. Where there once was respect, love and understanding, there is now hate, bitterness and distrust."
"As a staff, we are disappointed with the progress the board has made during negotiations, and, at times, the arrogance of board members," added Chuck Chavka, a teacher at Redoubt Elementary. "Relations are at least strained, at worst, broken."
One of the primary issues association members took exception to was the role of Richard Putney, former human relations director with the district, at the beginning of the negotiation process. Employees said that until recently, they had not received an apology from district superintendent Donna Peterson or from board members for Putney's behavior at the negotiating table.
Two weeks ago, after learning the associations did not believe she apologized for Putney's behavior, Peterson called association leadership and said she was sorry, said several speakers. School board president Nels Anderson also issued an apology.
"I'd like to thank you for the apology publicly," said KPEA president Hans Bilben. "As far as I'm concerned now, if I never hear about Putney again, that will be fine."
He added, however, that he wished board members would take responsibility for the "real" reason Putney was hired -- implying that the past lead district negotiator had been brought in to overpower the associations in bargaining.
Bilben also said the district provided its employees incorrect information comparing the most recent district contract proposal to a teacher contract recently settled in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.
He said when he pointed the errors out to the district, the data was removed from the Web site rather than corrected.
He added that he believes the district has endorsed a doctrine that says any pay increase for employees is unrealistic.
However, he said he is guardedly optimistic that the contracts will be settled during mediation next month.
Bilben received a standing ovation from the audience, as did three other association officers who spoke.
At the end of the 2 1/2 hour meeting, board members took their opportunity to respond to the audience comments.
Several board members thanked the district employees for their comments and asked various speakers to share more of the specifics of their suggestions at a later time.
They also explained that district budget issues had less to do with the administration and school board than the state's willingness to fund schools.
School board member Margaret Gilman said one way employees could help the district improve the financial situation is to vote -- and to encourage other peninsula residents to vote.
School board member Sammy Crawford agreed.
"It's important to vote on Nov. 5, not only because we're electing people to the Senate and the House, but also on Proposition C," Crawford said. "It's an important election."
Proposition C is a measure that would authorize the state to sell bonds in order to repair rural schools and University of Alaska campuses, as well as offer boroughs debt reimbursement credit on capital improvement projects for schools.
School board member Deb Germano also encouraged the audience to continue lobbying the Legislature for better funding for schools.
"We are trying to work with the Legislature to look at equitable funding (for schools). We did a lot of work last year and had a lot of support from people in this room," Germano said. "We have not waited for the state to do something for us. We'll continue, and you will continue (working). It is what we're here for -- the good of the kids."
Other board members went a step further, explaining to employees that they would like to be able to give raises but had to work within budgetary limits.
Anderson said he agreed with 70 to 80 percent of what he heard from employees.
Since 1991, he said, the district's budget has only increased about $10 million, and most of that has to go to pay for employees contracted annual pay increases, he said.
"We have cut everything to get to where we are," Anderson said. "Is the district as good as it was (10 years ago)? No. I kind of look at it in terms of what we can do."
He said that under the district's most recent salary proposal, if state funding for the district continues at the same level, 20 teachers would have to be laid off each year just to pay the remaining employees.
Under the associations' most recent proposal, 150 teachers or every noncertified employee would have to be let go, Anderson said.
"I have a problem with that," he said, adding he hopes a middle ground can be reached through mediation.
Board member Al Poindexter added that, as a former teacher with the district, he understood where the employees were coming from.
"I want to give you a raise. I would have loved to have a raise," he said. "You all deserve it. But if you have an empty bucket, where does the money come from?"
Board member Debra Mullins, on the other hand, did not respond by talking about money. Rather, she talked about respect -- the respect many employees told the board they did not feel they were receiving.
"I respect every person at the table," she said. "I have deep regrets about what has transpired and if I thought you would take my apology seriously, well, I offer it. It's up to you.
"I believe in an educated populace. I believe in the education of all people, all children. ... I believe all children can learn, all children deserve to learn. I think teaching is a noble profession," she said with tears in her eyes. "I don't impugn the character of any one of the team members, the leadership or the folks that work for us."
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