By Jenny Neyman
As Kenai Peninsula Borough School District funding settles into a rosier outlook than expected, the district is hoping to get its expenses squared away in its budget, as well, before the 2012 fiscal year calendar turns a page to 2013 on June 30. A big part of that still up in the air is ongoing negotiations with employee associations over three-year contracts slated to start in fiscal year 2013. Those negotiations hit another rough patch Tuesday when the employee associations submitted an Unfair Labor Practices claim against the district.
Negotiation teams for the district, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, meeting since January, had not come to agreement on the contracts by the end of April, prompting a two-day session of mediation May 1 and 2 that also ended without agreement on the big remaining sticking points — salary and health care. Generally, the next step after mediation is for the parties to enter advisory arbitration, which would occur in the fall.
However, as soon as mediation concluded the district invited the associations teams back to the negotiations table, and on Friday announced a financial carrot to encourage agreement on the contracts before the fall: Settle by June 30, and all KPEA and KPESA employees will get a one-time payment of $600, for most employees, or $1,000 for the longest-serving, highest-educated employees at the far end of the salary schedule.
“Through mediation we were able to settle a number of outstanding items, and the process allowed us to make progress with several unsettled items by exploring new and different solutions. I look forward to continue working toward the settlement of all items and coming to agreement on a new contract,” stated Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for instructional support, in a KPBSD press release issued last week.
“The negotiations team really wants to try to work with the associations so that everybody can finish this year, go into summer and have the school year go off to a good start. That’s what benefits students and that puts students first,” said Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist with the district, on Monday.
On May 2, the associations had not accepted the offer to return to the table.
“Given the fact that the mediator had barely ‘left the building,’ the associations did not see that going back would produce any favorable results. A request for arbitration has been submitted by the associations. This arbitration will more than likely take place in the fall,” stated LaDawn Druce, KPEA president, in a May 2 update to employees posted on the KPEA-KPESA website.
On Tuesday afternoon, Druce said that the associations were filing an Unfair Labor Practices claim with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency against the district in response to information the district released after the mediation session.
Erkeneff, Tuesday afternoon, said the district was not aware of the ULP complaint, and could not immediately comment on it.
Druce pointed to an informational document posted on the district’s website, titled “May 4, 2012: KPBSD new last best offer for KPEA and KPESA.”
It states: “… the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) negotiating team authorized the negotiation mediator to present both Kenai Peninsula Education Association (KPEA) and Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association (KPESA) bargaining teams a new last best offer on May 2, 2012, during confidential contract negotiation mediation.”
It goes on to explain the terms of the one-time payment the district is offering association members if agreement is reached by June 30, as well as details of the district’s “new last best offer,” apparently presented in mediation May 2. Druce said that, according to the terms of mediation, only items that are agreed upon by both sides are allowed to be released.
“The associations are disappointed that the district posted on their website confidential mediation discussions and, by admission on their own website, they actually say, ‘During confidential contract negotiation mediation.’ So they actually use that term on the website. So, by their own admission, those conversations were to be held in confidence. This has violated the ground rules that were set forth during mediation and we, as the associations, are now filing an Unfair Labor Practice against the district for violating the conditions of mediation,” Druce said.
Some matters were agreed to and signed off on during mediation, and it’s fine to discuss those, Druce said. But proposals made during mediation on health care and compensation have not been agreed to, and so should not have been made public, she said.
“The understanding that was made clear is that the information exchanged in mediation only comes forward if an agreement is reached,” she said.
The district’s most-recent offer to the associations, detailed on the website, included an annual raise built into employee contracts, based on longevity and education, of 1.78 percent to 4.82 percent for certified employees, and 3.44 percent to 12.34 percent for classified employees, as well as a 1 percent salary increase each of the next three years. The district also is offering two additional paid workdays with no school in session, and a 1 percent, per year for three years, increase in extracurricular salary schedule ranges.
In health care, the district’s most-recent offer amounts to an $840 annual reduction in what employees contribute to health care, with the district shouldering more of the cost. Any health care expenditures that exceed the set, proposed contribution levels will be split with the district paying 60 percent and employees 40 percent in the first year of the contract. If an employee participates in the district’s Wellness program, that split would change to the district covering 65 percent of those additional costs in the second year of the contract, and 70 percent in the third year, or 50 percent both those years if an employee does not participate in the Wellness program.
The associations have been holding out for “inflation-proofing” measures to keep up with rising inflation costs. The associations’ most-recent offer (presented before mediation) asks for a 3 percent raise each year plus whatever the consumer price index for Anchorage is for that year (currently it’s 2.8 percent). In health care, the associations would like a cost sharing of a $160 per-month employee contribution (that would cover the employee and their dependents) and $1,400 per-month district contribution, with any costs exceeding that split 90 percent from the district and 10 percent by an employee.
Druce said Tuesday that the associations were planning on submitting a written proposal to the district and were willing to return to the table to discuss it, but would not release information about it until such time as agreement is reached.
“We’re going to abide by the rules of mediation and keep that confidential. We’re willing to meet again to discuss our proposal, (but) we’re not going to put it out in the press and we’re not going to violate the rules of mediation like they chose to,” she said.
“We’re working out a time to meet when everyone’s available and we’re very appreciative the associations are open to continue meeting,” Erkeneff said Tuesday.
The previous Saturday, April 28, found school district employees and supporters on busy street corners in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer waving signs and hands at passing vehicles in support of public education and the associations’ negotiators heading into mediation.
“Basically, we’re just showing support for our bargaining team. They’ve got staff behind them, and they’re supporting them. And, as we go to mediation, raising awareness in the community,” Druce said April 28 while holding a “Honk if you love teachers” sign at the “Y” Intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways in Soldotna. “We’re staying positive and we’re out here with positive messages that the community supports education and our employees. We just wanted an opportunity to be out here this weekend and show that, and hopefully make the team feel encouraged.”
Cathy Carrow, a teacher at Redoubt Elementary School, said she was out at the rally April 28 to stand up for public education.
“I think this round of negotiations sort of reflects current events in the state in terms of not funding public education at the state level, and then the repercussions at the local level sort of sets the stage for what’s going to happen. I’m here today to raise awareness in our community that we need to support our schools,” she said.
State funding for education — still pending the governor’s signature — actually ended up bestowing an unexpected windfall on the district.
“Right now we’re really grateful for the extra funding we’ve that received. It’s very helpful,” Erkeneff said Monday.
The district had been projecting about a $3.4 million deficit in its fiscal year 2013 budget, but now is looking at having a bit of extra money to spend, thanks to a few boosts in funding — $1.75 million in one-time capital funding in the governor’s budget, and changes from the Legislature in the state’s education “Foundation Formula.” The Legislature changed the formula for figuring how much local governments could contribute to their school district, which lowered the amount the Kenai Peninsula Borough could provide to the district by about $2.7 million. However, the Legislature committed the state to making up that difference in funding.
The district also stands to get a four-year increase of about $413,000 in state funding for career and technical education targeting seventh and eighth grades, and a boost in transportation money. In all, the district is looking at coming out $953,251 ahead in its general fund for fiscal year 2013, before negotiations are settled and pending the governor signing off on the state budget.
Additionally, last year the district dug $750,000 out of its general fund budget to cover a shortfall in the transportation account when busing costs with provider First Student came in higher than anticipated. The Legislature increased pupil transportation funding for 2013 to the point where it will cover the costs of the district’s new contract with First Student. The Legislature also designated $750,000 to reimburse the district for the shortfall in this current school year.
Since the district no longer has to spend money from its general fund on transportation, it has some extra money in the budget for the current fiscal year. That’s where the money is coming from for the new offers in negotiations.
“Because of the funding by the Legislature, we will no longer need to do that transfer, that means we now have $750,000 that we did not expect to have in the general fund, that has allowed us to offer some items in mediation and negotiations that we ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to,” Jones said during a school board meeting Monday in Seward.
Druce cited the increase in state funding, the current budget surplus projected for fiscal year 2013 and the return of the transportation money this year as an indication the district has some financial leeway to use in negotiations.
“These things suggesting, at least in our opinion, the district has money to put toward our proposal,” she said.