As we all know, in life, very few things are mandatory -- a teachers strike is not one of them. At least, not in any of the versions of the old saying that I have heard.
We are currently in the midst of some of the most divisive times that I can ever recall in this school district. There are those who would say that the reason for that is the teachers and support staff unions are "finally" going to stand up for themselves, and demand what they deserve.
Others would contend that the district is not willing to bargain in good faith, and therefore there is no other alternative to a strike. Some would say that the die was cast from the beginning of this process that a strike would eventually happen -- and that no other course is available.
Well, I would say something entirely different.
I would say that we (as a district) were aware that the move was afoot by the employee associations to accomplish some pretty dramatic things through the negotiation process. I would say that we knew going in that we shouldn't expect to have a congenial conversation around what adjustments needed to be made in the contract in order to extend it for three more years.
I would say that a set of expectations has been developed that are unrealistic, and therefore the district has chosen to maintain its stance of offering something reasonable, and inviting the associations to participate with us in "tweaking" that proposal to make it acceptable to all. Unfortunately, that has not happened.
So, now we are about to embark on a mediation process, wherein an independent, trained individual will come in and attempt to find some middle ground. Three years ago, it was this individual who was able to solve the contract problem for all of us, and I have hopes that he will do so again this year.
The difference is that this year we are miles apart, while three years ago only inches separated us. However, I am still hopeful that the mediator's efforts will bear fruit.
I believe, however, that for anything good to occur from this mediation, there are a few things which must occur.
1. Both sides must enter the process without preconception.
We must go into this session with a legitimate intention of solving the problem in a collaborative way. The end result here should be a contract which is fair, reasonable, and which can be funded. It is entirely appropriate that different people would define those adjectives differently -- that is why we negotiate. But we must always be working toward those goals.
2. An atmosphere of respect and trust must somehow be re-established among the parties.
To some extent, this discussion has become clouded by the clash of personalities -- and the distortion of realities to accomplish an end. We must remember that we are all there doing our respective jobs -- and we must respect each other for that. I feel that many times this has been an aspect that is missing, or at least that gets twisted in order to solidify a position.
3. I would request that the associations join with the district in requesting a written report from the mediator, should his efforts prove fruitless.
By its very nature, mediation is a closed process, and an independent report by the mediator would dispel any attempts by either side to "spin" the mediation process to its benefit.
4. Finally, and most important, both sides must remember that what we are trying to do here is provide a service both to the community and to kids.
I am aware that we can see even that responsibility differently. That really doesn't make anybody wrong. It only means we see it from a different perspective.
So, can a strike be avoided?
Of course it can. If we can be people of good will who set out to solve a problem by finding a mutually agreeable solution, then it can be averted.
If we want to point fingers and assign blame, then there may be no other option than a job action. However, it is clear that no aspect of our original mission will be enhanced by such a course.
North Kenai resident Joe Arness is a longtime school board member who also serves on the school district's negotiating team.
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