This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

An educator and support staff strike was averted hours before it was slated to begin, early Tuesday morning, when the school district and two employee associations reached a tentative agreement.

The agreement for a three-year contract, reached at 1:37 a.m., will be effective between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021.

“We’re glad we didn’t have to go on strike,” Kenai Peninsula Education Association President David Brighton said. “Teachers are very excited to be back in their classrooms and working with students. No one wanted that interruption to the education process. I’m also very thankful for the community support that we felt throughout this process.”

The associations and the district had been negotiating for a contract for nearly 600 days, and bargaining was snagged on the rising cost of health care. After contract negotiations hit a standstill last week, the education associations notified the school district Friday of their intent to strike.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District presented the associations — Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association — with a counter proposal at 9:30 p.m., Monday.

“Our feeling is this addresses the concern of the rising cost of health care and sets a more sustainable rate for us,” Brighton said Tuesday. “It seems like a good compromise all around.”

Brighton said the district’s counter offer was based on an offer the associations presented to the district back on May 13. The offer migrates employees from the district’s traditional plan to the high-deductible plan currently available and removes a spending cap on health care costs. The cap was a funding limit that when surpassed required employees to split costs 50-50. Beginning in January 2020, every employee will migrate to one of two high-deductible plans — the current high-deductible plan and a new modified one offered in the district’s proposal. Under the new plans, the district will pay 85% of health care costs, while the employee pays 15% with no cap.

The traditional plan had more expensive premiums, meaning more money taken out of employees’ paychecks. The high-deductible plan ensures less expensive premiums, but has a higher upfront cost to employees receiving medical care.

The Clarion previously reported in May that some employees on the traditional plan could have expected to pay $1,000 a month next year for their health care plan. When more than 400 educators moved to the high-deductible plan, the district saved $1.2 million, a May 16 press release from the employee associations said.

District Director of Communications Pegge Erkeneff said costs associated with the traditional health plan were rising substantially for employees and the district. By eliminating the traditional plan, the district can apply health care cost savings to offset the district and employee monthly contributions, Erkeneff said.

The agreed upon proposal includes other benefits too. Erkeneff said the district is going to put $668,748 into the Employee Health Care Reserve Account, an account that is used to pay for health care costs that exceed what’s anticipated in a year. The district is also increasing their annual contributions offering to $800 per employee, which can be used toward medical expenditures.

Wage increases, including 0.5% for last year, 1% for this year and 2% for next year were also included in the proposal, and language was included to reflect district concerns about one-time money that’s currently tied up in a state lawsuit. If the lawsuit determines the one-time money will not come, the 2% wage increase for next year will be reduced accordingly.

Another important element of the proposal makes support staff eligible for coaching and extracurricular positions and stipends.

“We’re really happy to offer that to our support staff now,” Erkeneff said.

The associations will be traveling to schools for the next week to explain the agreement to employees, and helping them understand the offer. A vote will be taken on the agreement beginning next Monday and ending Wednesday. Once the agreement is approved and ratified, the proposal can begin to be implemented.

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