Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

A sea of red flooded the Betty J. Glick Assembly Chambers Monday night, when hundreds of educators, support staff and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees attended the Education Board meeting, wearing red in solidarity and support of getting a contract. After public comment, the district employees moved outside to rally for a contract, and discuss a potential strike.

Two full busses of employees from Homer and Seward, along with employees from the central peninsula, were packed into the assembly chambers, with many people sitting on the floor and filling up all three of the chamber’s entryways.

Now in the second semester of the school year, teachers and staff are still without a contract. Arbitration between the district and unions is expected Feb. 26-27, but staff said they hope to find a contract sooner, without arbitration.

Stephanie Cronin has been teaching in the district for 20 years. Her family lives in Seward, where her children attend Seward High and Seward Middle School. During public comment, Cronin spoke on behalf of teachers and staff across the peninsula.

“Today, we have worked 100 days, over 32 weeks without a contract,” Cronin said. “During this time we have spent countless hours of our own personal time in the evenings and weekends to provide an excellent education for our students. We’ve spent thousands of our own dollars to enhance our learning in our classrooms. We want to continue to do this. We want to work as a team. But it is hard when you as our leaders continue to treat us this way during contract negotiations. Every few years we go through the same drawn-out battle only to end up in arbitration.”

The district has spent $16,252.50 on legal fees related to contract negotiations, according to documents provided by the district at Monday’s school board work sessions.

Cronin said the lack of a contract has been difficult for employees in the district.

“Teachers want to stay here to work and raise families, but the lack of a contract and constant uncertainty about the costs of health care are making it hard for many to stay,” Cronin said. “…We look around the country and we see our colleagues standing up demanding that they are respected. We are feeling the pain and frustration that our fellow educators felt in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Los Angeles, and this is what it would look like here on the Kenai Peninsula.”

That last line of Cronin’s public comment was the cue for employees to vacate the assembly chambers into the borough building’s lower parking lot, where a short rally took place. Educators and support staff, most of them wearing red, and several who were waving signs demanding a fair contract, stood in a circle outside the chambers chanting “fair contract now.”

David Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, addressed the crowd, encouraging employees to attend the Feb. 19 Borough Assembly meeting and to contact their school board representatives. Brighton said arbitration begins at the end of February, and through arbitration, the end of April would be the soonest employees saw a contract. Boos and jeering arose from the crowd, and talks of an upcoming strike were discussed, but Brighton wouldn’t commit to a specific date.

The cost of health care has been a focal point during negotiations. In her public comment to the school board, Cronin said employees in the district are taking home less in real dollars, compared to last year, due to increasing health care costs.

“Rather than meeting with us to negotiate a solution to health care you created an emergency enrollment in September where more than 400 employees took on more risk and will pay more when they use their health care because they couldn’t afford the rising cost of the premium,” Cronin said.

Cronin said this move created a $1.2 million savings for the district that was not used to improve salaries and benefits for employees.

“(The school board) took (the savings) out of the budget to use it elsewhere,” Cronin said. “We believe that was patently wrong and deceptive at best.”

A reduction of $1,170,029 for district health care contributions resulted from the transition of employees from the traditional plan to the high-deductible health plan, and employees opting out of health care coverage, according to a document provided at Monday’s school board work sessions clarifying the January 2019 budget revisions. Employees switching to the high-deductible health plan will collectively save approximately $849,300, which are funds that individuals may use to pay for deductibles and out-of-pocket costs when health care is needed, the document said.

During Monday’s school board work sessions, school board Vice President Zen Kelly confirmed with district staff 15 employees opted out of the district’s health care programs. According to the clarifying document, employees who opted out will collectively see around $74,700 less in premium payments from their paychecks.

Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for the district, said the district doesn’t have the new revenue sources to pay for the salary and benefit increases requested by employee unions.

“So we’re back to the same situation we were in prior to negotiations: find alternative internal savings or new revenue,” Jones said at Monday’s school board work sessions. “We haven’t been able to identify alternative savings within the budget, and the state and borough haven’t come forward with additional revenue. In fact, as we’ve discussed, the state has come forward with a reduction of money to us.”

The district’s expenditures have exceeded their revenues for the eight years in a row.

The public comments and rally come in a wake of increased action by employees to get a contract. Last week, staff hosted walk-ins and walk-outs at several schools across the peninsula, and residents have expressed support for education at the most recent Borough Assembly meeting. There are no official plans for a teacher strike. Employees are required to notify the district 72 hours in advance of a strike.

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