By Jenny Neyman
Collective bargaining teams for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Education Support Association met Monday in Soldotna in an attempt to iron out the details of a contract to cover the next three years, but again left the table without resolution on the two biggest-ticket items remaining — salary and health care.
No further negotiation dates have been set for the spring or summer. The associations have put in a request for arbitration, which would begin in the fall. The teams already have gone through mediation earlier this month, after which the associations filed a claim of unfair labor practices against the district for publicly disseminating details of the school district’s offer. The ULP charges that information presented in closed-session mediation should have been kept confidential. Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist for the KPBSD, offered the district’s response Monday:
“The district is aware that a ULP has been filed with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency. We’re prepared to assist ALRA in finding a positive outcome to the claim, and the district is very confident that the charges will not be substantiated and we’ll be able to continue to bargain for a successful settlement for employees, and that affects the students of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.”
After mediation, the teams agreed to meet Monday in an effort to settle contracts before the end of the fiscal year June 30. That did not happen.
“The bottom line is that the district refuses to meet our reasonable proposal on health care or salary. If we can’t fix health care, then I don’t see how this is going to end with an agreement,” said Joe Rizzo, spokesman for the KPEA bargaining team.
“The district is confident that we are offering a competitive package,” Erkeneff said.
Under salary, the district is offering an increase of 1 percent per year, each year of the contract — so, 3 percent in all — to all levels of the pay scale. In addition is a flat $300 a year for each of the three years to each support employee and $600 a year each of the three years to certified employees.
As an extra carrot, if the associations agree to the district’s offer by the end of the fiscal year June 30, then each current employee gets a one-time payment of $800, or $1,200 for those at the highest end of the salary schedule.
Under health insurance, the district’s current offer is to limit employees’ contribution to $270 per month, with the district picking up an increased amount of the rest of the estimated cost per month — $1,330 in fiscal year 2013, $1,350 in fiscal year 2014 and $1,380 in fiscal year 2015.
Any health care costs incurred beyond those amounts would be split between the district and employees. If the employee chooses to participate in what the district is calling a new wellness program — requiring each employee to get a physical every year — then the cost overrun split would be 60 percent paid by the district with 40 percent paid by employees in fiscal year 2013, 65 percent and 35 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 70 percent and 30 percent in fiscal year 2015. If an employee does not get a physical every year, the split would be 50-50.
Erkeneff said the physicals would be 100 percent covered by insurance and would not be subject to a deductible. The purpose is to encourage prevention of illness and general wellness, which reduces health care costs overall. The district is self-insured, so savings in health care are keenly felt.
“Having an annual physical can find things before they develop into more serious, and expensive, conditions,” Erkeneff said.
The district is proposing a 30-working-day probationary period for all new employees before health care coverage would kick in, and a change to who is eligible for coverage. Employees who work under six hours a day would not be eligible for coverage. Current support employees working four hours or more would be grandfathered in and keep their coverage, and also would have a one-time opportunity to opt out of coverage if they like.
Terri Tidwell, spokesperson for the KPESA bargaining team, said that she is concerned that the change would create a growth in the amount of under-six-hour employees in the district.
“Our fear is, from our experience from years past, then that creates the 5-hour, 45-minute employee. Because of the (staffing) formulas for support employees, it’d be really easy to go down under six hours. We have a seven-hour head secretary now because (a school was) going to cut eight hours (of support staff time), so, rather than one person being cut eight hours, they took it and shared it with everybody. Administrators have discretion to utilize the hours how they see fit,” Tidwell said.
As for the physicals, even if employees don’t have to pay a deductible to get a physical, the plan still has to pay for the physicals, and since the district is self-insured, costs to the plan are costs to the district and its employees. Tidwell said that the associations would like to see the district reimburse the health care plan for the cost of the physicals.
“When you’re self-insured nothing’s really paid for, there’s a cost for everything,” Tidwell said.
Under salary for support employees, Tidwell said that the district’s offer wasn’t going far enough.
“We have eight-hour employees working nine months a year without anything extra, frilly, taken out of the check other than health care and union dues and regular stuff. And they are bringing home $1,200 a month, and these are breadwinners, the people that are paying rent out of their check, they’re taking a car payment out of there. Our people are trying to decide whether to put food on their table,” Tidwell said. “And not all of these people can get summertime jobs, so they’ve got to take a little bit out of their paycheck and put it in a savings account to get them through the summer months.”
Support employees have already seen cuts in hours over the years, Tidwell said, citing that employees used to work over winter and spring breaks. If a support employee were to be reduced to less than six hours, it would have a dramatic impact, she said.
“When I say you take two hours away from them, it takes a third of their paycheck. It just devastates them,” she said.
The associations are proposing an 85 percent, 15 percent district-employee split to cover any health care costs that overrun the health care reserve account.
For salary, the associations would like to “inflation-proof” the salary schedule, meaning increase it the same percentage as the Consumer Price Index for Anchorage each July. The associations have argued that any raises the district has given in recent contracts have been eaten up by cost overruns in health care and by inflation.
“They (the district’s negotiations team members) keep stressing, ‘We need to do this (accept the district’s proposal) for the kids,’” said Matt Fischer, with the KPPEA negotiations team. “Traditionally, we had a great retirement system. New teachers would come up to Alaska, you’re in 20, 25 years and retire. Now it’s a 401(k) system where they can take it with them, so we don’t have that hook, or anchor, to keep them here. So, as our pay scale isn’t matching other districts, are we going to be getting the best teachers?”
The associations presented comparisons between the district’s proposed salary schedule in fiscal year 2013 — with the 1 percent increase — versus other districts in the state, showing the district lagging behind. Compared to Anchorage, starting teachers in KPBSD would earn $2,594.55 less a year, and the highest-paid “longevity” position would make $455.14 less. Compared to the Matanuska-Susitna School District, the difference is listed at $694.55 less for a starting teacher and $9,634.93 less for the highest comparable salary level (the schedules have different numbers of salary “steps”). In Fairbanks it’s shown as $1,859.55 less for a starting teacher and $3,060.14 less for a “longevity” position. Compared to Juneau’s current salary schedule (since that district also is still in negotiations), the associations’ charts show a starting salary that’s $1,678.55 less for a starting teacher and $208.86 more for a “longevity” position.
“Of the major districts of the state, we are the absolutely lowest paid,” Fischer said. “Good grief, who is going to come here to teach? It’s a nice place to live and all, but, you know what, so is Mat-Su, so is Fairbanks.”
Fischer said that Fairbanks recently settled on a salary increase of 1 percent per year. That would be fine here if KPBSD had kept up increases in recent years like Fairbanks had, he said. But KPBSD employees haven’t gotten the previous increases employees in Fairbanks have, he said.
“I could handle a 1 percent raise there, they’ve been getting a 4 percent increase every year for their last contract. If we go up 1 percent it’s different than them going up 1 percent,” Fischer said.
Erkeneff said the district is reviewing the charts provided by the associations.
“We’re researching that to see what that is, but we are finding some inconsistencies so we do have some further questions about that, so we are doing some research right now into those comparison tables,” she said.
She said that the district feels its offer is fair, whereas straight comparisons between districts may not be as equitable.
“We have hundreds of applicants and employees who come to the district and stay in the district. And when we look at comparing strictly wage and salary to other districts, there are a lot of other things to look at, as well — classroom sizes, cost of living, other benefits that a district may have or not have. It’s comparing a lot of those different things if you want to do a comparison in the state of Alaska,” she said.
The $300 for support and $600 for certified employees in the district’s proposal is being presented as a means to compensate for inflation. Rather than a fixed amount, the associations would rather have the salary schedule linked to the Consumer Price Index.
“If they’re saying, ‘We’re matching inflation’ (with the $300 and $600 amounts), then accept our proposal and let’s be done with this. All we’re asking for is inflation-proofing, we’re not asking for any increase beyond inflation. We’re not going to catch up with Fairbanks, we’re not going to catch up with Anchorage, but let’s not go any deeper in the hole,” Fischer said. “If (the district says its proposal is) matching inflation, let’s go with the CPI and just put it on paper. That way we know we can depend on it and we’re not going to go backwards.”