School staff contracts finalized

Sep 17, 2021

Strike signs hang in the KPEA office as a reminder of the 2019 negotiation process. The district and associations reached an agreement just hours before the strike was set to begin, on Sept. 17.
Credit Courtesy of Nathan Erfurth

Teachers and staff in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have finalized their new contracts, which lay out a new tiered healthcare system and wage raises for some support staff, among other changes.

The district’s Board of Education ratified the new agreements this week. They’ll be in place until 2024.

“This is the smoothest contract negotiation that we’ve had in quite some time," said Nathan Erfurth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association.

Erfurth said 88 percent of the association’s voting members and 99 percent of voting members from the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association voted in favor of the new contracts.

“In reality, it’s pretty historical for the district," said Superintendent Clayton Holland.

Holland said the process went so well, in part, because of how the district and associations approached bargaining this year. They negotiated through a process called interest-based bargaining ― a more collaborative method in which parties bargain as a team. 

The last bargaining process lasted a year and a half, largely over a disagreement about health care premiums.

Staff threatened a strike but reached an agreement with the district at the eleventh hour.

“And, overall, it was just that we worked so well together on this," Holland said. "And coming off of last negotiations, which were so tough, and took us to the brink of a strike — to come in and, I think, for most people, to barely recognize we were doing it because it was going well between all the groups.”

Erfurth said he’s excited about how the new contracts compensate for more years of staff experience. The new contracts also lay out an additional personal day for all employees. And staff can carry up to 10 days of leave at a time, which is two more days than before.

There’s also a new tiered health care system. Under that system, each employee would fall into one of four categories, from “employee only” to “employee plus family.”

Some support staff will see salary increases under the new plan. 

"We did negotiate a decent contract that’s kind of on par with what other schools around the state have done," Erfurth said. "But we still don’t have the most competitive wages, the most competitive rates, for the professional services that we provide. So that’s going to remain a problem that we’re going to have to address in the future if we’re going to want to attract quality educators and keep them here.”

The district still is struggling to fill openings for staff and support staff positions. 

That’s been a problem for districts nationwide, as well, during the pandemic.

But Erfurth said filling positions is always a challenge for the district. That’s partly because the Alaska Legislature finalizes its budget so late.

“We’re often posting positions in May or later," Erfurth said. "Teachers around the nation are usually picking what they’re going to do for the following school year in March.”

The district has several open nursing positions — created during the pandemic to address COVID-19 needs, like contact tracing and in-school testing.

To make wages more competitive and fill those open positions, the district is raising nurse wages an additional $5 per hour.

“That $5 retroactive raise is definitely a way we want to recognize [nurses] for all their hard work and make us a little more on equal footing," Holland said.

Currently, Erfurth said, there are half as many nurses as there are schools in the district. That means many schools don't have nurses.

“Many of our schools don't have a nurse," he said. "Including Soldotna High School, which is our biggest school."

You can read the new agreement in full at kpea-kpesa.org/contracts.