Teachers, staff feel the support as school board meets in Homer

Sep 10, 2019

“I will simply say that if the teachers need to strike, I give them my full support.” -- Greta Mahowald

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board and its employees are getting ever closer to a tipping point in their contract negotiations. Monday night the school board met in Homer, and heard from a seemingly never-ending stream of people who back the teachers and support staff.
    “I spent my entire career at Paul Banks Elementary. And it was a wonderful career,” said Debra Poor. “I didn't come here tonight to speak but I think I have had some experience that many people in this building haven't. We did have a strike while I was teaching. And I stood holding a picket in Soldotna. And the IBEW joined us. I was raised in a family where my father was a journeyman carpenter. And you didn't cross a picket line, picket lines were terrifying things.”
    “I'm finding it embarrassing that teachers in this school district have to think about striking in order to have a salary and healthcare that meets their needs,” said Kate Finn. “How embarrassing is this?”
    When Greta Mahowald spoke, she got into a back-and-forth with School Board President Penny Vadla, who did not appreciate what she considered negative comments.
    “Just as a kind of an end note here, the letter that was sent out to parents was offensive,” Mahowald said, referring to a note sent by the superintendent. “I found that highly offensive. It characterized the teachers and support staff as the enemy, the people that were going to create the strike. That’s not how I see it at all.”
    “Excuse me,” said Vadla. “That's probably not appropriate right now.”
    “Isn’t this public comment?” Mahowald asked. “My understanding is that this is public comment, and I'm making a public comment…."
    “It's actually derogatory in nature,” said Vadla.
    “I am a member of the community expressing that I felt offended by something that was put out by a member of the school district,” Mahowald persisted.
    “And I would politely disagree,” said Vadla.
    “Okay, then I will not comment on the letter specifically then,” said Mahowald. “I will simply say that if the teachers need to strike, I give them my full support.”
    That last comment and the loud applause it drew prompted a mea culpa from Superintendent John O'Brien, who wrote the letter in question.
    “Perhaps I should have used the term ‘union leadership’ only once. Maybe not at all,” O’Brien said. “So David, Ann, Barb Angiak, if you're still here as a former NEA Alaska President, members of the bargaining team for both KPEA and KPESA, my sincere apologies if I failed to adhere to the importance of respect.”
    Negotiators are scheduled to be back at the bargaining table on Wednesday. Two weeks ago the unions announced they would be ready to strike as early as Monday (Sept. 16).