The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education looked out at a sea of red in its meeting in Homer on Monday night. Over a hundred teachers and support staff, who are seeing red over unresolved contract negotiations, wore red to the meeting and spoke out about their concerns.
Negotiations for a contract that was supposed to go into effect this school year began in February but have yet to be resolved. The school district and associations representing teachers and support staff went through an unsuccessful round of mediation and now are moving to arbitration. Dave Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, says it’s been about a decade since a round of negotiations finished on time and without needing outside adjudication.
“I don’t know why it is that every time we go to the negotiations table we end up going all the way through mediation and then arbitration,” Brighton said. “I can’t remember a contract that we’ve had that didn’t go through that. I’m asking you guys to encourage the school district to come to the negotiation table to bargain.”
Pegge Erkeneff, the district’s communications specialist, says the proposals offered by the associations were too costly given the district’s current financial situation.
“To institute the associations’ proposals, the district would require $5.5 million in new revenue from the state or borough, or it would need to reduce approximately 55 full-time teaching positions across the district,” Erkeneff said. “… At this point, the district made a one-year offer based on what the fiscal reality is in our state and we’re working with the rising cost of health care claims and decreasing funding for schools.”
The sticking point this go-around is health care. Even with cost-saving measures instituted by the district’s Health Care Committee, costs are still ballooning and employees are feeling the impact. Lindsay Martin, a teacher at Homer Flex School, said the increases are tough on families.
“There are many of us that the increase in monthly costs is very stressful and anxiety-inducing. I signed my paper to return in the springtime under the impression that the health care costs would be what they are,” Martin said. “… And I guess I’m just talking tonight because I want the board to know that I know you have to balance the budget, but it takes a real toll on some of your teachers and their families.”
Brighton said he’s concerned about a lack of transparency from the district. He says an open enrollment period for employees to choose between a high-deductible or traditional plan was announced with only a day’s notice. He also says that information was requested a month ago about potential ramifications to premiums if a large chunk of employees move to the high-deductible plan, and that information still hasn’t been provided.
“My deep concern is if we have a mass exodus from the traditional plan to the high-deductible plan, then we set the wrong rate a couple weeks ago and we will not collect enough money to cover the costs of health care and we will have to change the rate midyear. The Health Care Committee and subcommittee have worked very hard to avoid that,” Brighton said.
Erkeneff said the special open enrollment period that offered a choice to move to the high-deductible plan came about after employees in June requested a way to mitigate the impacts of increasing premiums of the traditional plan. She said employees can still choose to make the switch during the regular open enrollment period in November and December. As for the requested information, she said it’s on the way.
“The district has sought the information immediately after the request was made. Health care costs are complex, they require actuarial review, which takes time. And the associations have been informed of the district’s progress in this endeavor and will continue to be provided accurate information as it becomes available,” Erkeneff said.
Several school board members voiced their appreciation of teachers and staff. Board member Tim Navarre asked those in attendance to be as involved in advocating for more education funding as they have been for a resolution on contracts.
“I wish we were the enemy, because then I could make a strong argument here, if we were withholding funds or not going out there on your behalf. And we need all of you that turned out today and a lot more as we go to battle again this year at the state Legislature and at the borough level,” Navarre said.
Until new contracts are settled, teachers and support staff work under the terms of the previous negotiated agreement. Any pay increases outlined in that contract were applied in July.
There’s more information on the bargaining process and health care on the district’s website, kpbsd.k12.ak.us.
Editor’s note: Dave Brighton is a board member of KDLL.