Mediation produces optimism

School district, unions pleased with dialogue; more talks may follow

Posted: Friday, November 22, 2002

Mediation efforts may have failed to yield a new contract for Kenai Peninsula teachers and support staff workers, but that doesn't mean the negotiation process is over.

In fact, the mediation process may have opened some doors to solving the ongoing contract dispute, which has been going on since early this year.

Both Joe Arness, negotiations spokesperson for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and Hans Bilben, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said they were pleased with the level of dialogue at the mediation meetings Tuesday and Wednesday.

Both seemed cautiously optimistic that bargaining may continue before the teams meet with an arbitrator.

The KPEA and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association have been involved in somewhat contentious contract negotiations with the district since early this year. In September, the teams declared impasse and called on a federal mediator to help. The mediator met with the teams this week, but they walked away without a settlement around 7:30 Wednesday night -- 3 1/2 hours after the meetings were scheduled to stop.

"I think both sides had hopes we could come to some resolution, so we stayed a little longer," Bilben said.

"We just ran out of time," Arness added.

The official next step in the negotiation process is arbitration. Bilben and Arness said the teams have already contacted arbitration services and are in the process of selecting an arbitrator and setting up a time frame.

However, both also said Thursday that conversations may continue before the arbitrator arrives.

"Everybody went into (mediation) with a great degree of optimism. It was a big letdown and a lot of frustration when it failed," Bilben said. "But both parties agreed to keep the door open. It's not entirely out of the question that something could happen before arbitration."

Arness said the associations offered a new contract proposal at the end of Wednesday night's meeting, and the district plans to analyze it in the next few days.

"We can respond to that, should we choose to, before arbitration," Arness said. "We will progress down the arbitration path, obviously, but I'm hoping we also will continue having conversations between now and then.

"My sense was that we built some momentum (Wednesday), and I'm hoping we will continue that momentum."

Despite the disappointing outcome, both Arness and Bilben said the mediation discussions were productive to an extent.

"The fact that we were talking is good," Bilben said. "We had some face-to-face time with the (school) board and a lot of time with the mediator. The open line of communication is good."

Arness agreed.

"We had a tremendous amount, I think, of really good conversation. The conversations we had provided an opportunity to exchange ideas.

"I think there's an understanding between the two groups we didn't have before," he said.

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