Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees head back into negotiations this week, but this time the union and district teams will be sitting at different tables.
The district enters mediation with the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association today. Teachers and support staff members are bargaining for new contracts to replace ones that expired in June.
The district and associations have been negotiating since the beginning of the year, but declared impasse in September after disputes over pay scales, health benefits and bargaining tactics halted the process.
The teams will meet with a federal mediator from Washington today and Wednesday to rehash the situation and, hopefully, find an acceptable middle ground.
Unlike in the general bargaining sessions, the teams stay in their respective caucus rooms, and the mediator acts, literally, as a go-between, trying to put together a deal. Also, unlike in the previous bargaining meetings, the mediation sessions are closed to the public.
The mediator has two days to work with the teams. He can call the process off early if he feels a compromise is impossible, as happened when the employees in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District went to mediation early this year. The teams also can mutually request more time, though the assigned mediator already has appointments for later in the week -- working on contract negotiations for nurses at Central Peninsula General Hospital.
If mediation fails, the contract negotiation process will go to arbitration, wherein both sides will present their cases to an arbitrator, who will develop a settlement. Both the district and associations will be free to accept or reject that settlement, and rejection could, ultimately, result in a strike.
However, both sides have said a strike is the last resort and hope the mediation process yields positive results.
"My hopes are that he will provide both sides the insight of a fresh set of eyes looking at the situation," said Joe Arness, the district's negotiation spokesperson and president of the school board.
Hans Bilben, KPEA president, agreed.
"We're guardedly optimistic that this will bear fruit and we can get back to the job at hand," he said.
"It's been a lot of time and energy, a lot of emotion. We'd like to see it come to a satisfactory conclusion."
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