By Jenny Neyman
Bargaining teams for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Kenai Peninsula Education and Education Support Associations reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract Thursday, after 14 months of negotiations. The contract now will go to a vote of the associations’ memberships and the KPBSD Board of Education. If approved, it will go into effect retroactively from July 1, 2012, and extend through June 30, 2015.
Neither team expressed elation over where the contract ended up, but both said it was an agreement they could live with.
“I think we’re comfortable with where we settled,” said Sean Dusek, KPBSD assistant superintendent of instruction. “We’re going to have to take a close look at our finances over the years. Costs continue to grow, and this is a publicly funded enterprise and we need to be fiscally responsible, so that’s always going to be part of the equation.”
The view was similar from the other side of the bargaining table.
“We had to work the language to the point where the bargaining team felt like this is as good as it’s going to get for us right now. We need to go out and answer questions and let the membership decide,” said LaDawn Druce, president of KPEA.
Negotiations began in January 2012, went through mediation last spring and nonbinding arbitration this fall. The release of the arbitrator’s report in December 2012 helped move things forward on the highest-dollar sticking points — salary and health care.
The contract the teams signed off on Thursday largely follows the arbitrator’s recommendations, including:
- 2 percent pay increase per year.
- A change in health care contributions, with the district shouldering more of the cost of the self-funded system. In the first year the district will pay 80 percent of the costs and employees 20 percent, moving to a 83 percent-17 percent split in year two and a 85 percent-15 percent split in year three.
- Elimination of a 50-50 split of costs overruns in health care. Now any cost overruns will be split at the same ratio as funding of the health insurance system.
- Elimination of monthly employee contributions for dependent and spouse health care coverage.
The only deviation was in the structure, function and work of the Health Care Committee, which has purview over plan benefits. The district wanted greater say in the committee, since it was taking on more financial burden for health care costs. The terms agreed to call for three members of the committee to be district employees appointed by the superintendent. Further, the committee must vote on any proposed changes in benefits or increases in administrative expenses, with an 80 percent majority required for passage of motions.
“We’re pleased with pieces that we were passionate about. We definitely felt strongly about the committee and needing to be a part of that decision-making, and that ended up happening,” Dusek said.
Hammering out the details of committee membership dominated several negotiation sessions, with discussions sometimes centering on just one word or phrase.
Druce said that such specificity was important to the associations because they felt blindsided by the district proposing to change the committee a year into negotiations — the first proposal regarding the committee came Jan. 22, after the arbitrator’s response was released in December 2012.
“We know that health care can play such a major part in (employees’) livelihood,” she said. “They had said all along, ‘A raise is great but if we cannot control our health care costs we don’t see the benefits of that raise.’ So to have a totally different mechanism put into place for that in terms of that committee, we had to scrutinize it for what it could look like. Our lens is through representing our employees in the best possible way.”
Talks, particularly in the last two months, snagged on specifics of the health care committee, its membership and what it would and wouldn’t have authority over. The mechanism by which the health care system is funded also came under the microscope, with teams finally agreeing to set their own contribution levels.
The district will estimate costs for the year and budget its contributions. Separately, a committee representing employees will estimate plan costs for the year and determine employees’ monthly premium. An employee health care reserve fund also will be established, with a $750,000 balance. If health care costs exceed what was paid into the plan, the employees’ share of the overrun will come from the reserve fund, rather than in the form of an extra bill to employees at the end of the year. Then the next year, employee premiums will be set at a level that will cover the new year’s expected health care costs as well as pay the reserve fund back up to the $750,000 level.
Getting to this agreement took several proposals back and forth as both sides were exactingly precise in wrangling over language. At times the issue of trust, or a lack thereof, arose.
“I do think there’s an issue of trust, and I think it’s coming from experience, quite honestly,” Druce said.
Particularly in the area of health care, employees have felt burned by increasing costs, and the associations’ negotiating teams wanted to protect against that happening as much as possible in the future.
“They have lived through experiences where those kinds of things come and oftentimes it seems like, ‘Oh, that was a gotcha.’ We hadn’t thought of it that way or that wasn’t our intention, but suddenly it’s like, ‘Well, this is how we’re perceiving it.’ And this process has done nothing to help that,” Druce said.
Druce also said that negotiations didn’t get off to a good start, from the associations’ perspective, with the district bringing proposals that consumed time yet ended up reverting back to existing language — such as proposed changes to the assessment of association fees, employee donation of sick leave and the substitute-finding system.
“It began in a very, I would say, contentious manner and that wasn’t helpful. We knew all along we needed to talk about health care, and to have to deal with some of the things that they brought that, in my opinion, there was no basis for, was just wasting time,” Druce said.
Dusek said that formal collective bargaining is a lengthier process than the Interest-Based Bargaining system used to negotiate the previous contract.
“I think the difference between the formal collective bargaining and IBB kind of lends itself to that — you have to be very specific. You have to point out all of the details,” Dusek said.
He said that communication can always be improved and it is the district’s goal to do so, especially moving forward with the new iteration of the health care committee and federal health care changes on the horizon.
“I think that there has been some miscommunication in the past that has also led to some issues of, ‘Hey, let’s really get this down to the letter.’ And we need to keep working on that. Everybody can be better at communicating, and everybody can be better at listening. I think that’s a huge priority for everybody from the administration all the way through the entire staff. We’re very open to that and we certainly want everybody to feel that they’re heard,” Dusek said.
For instance, Dusek said that the district team got the message loud and clear that teachers want more professional development time.
“We had discussions about many instructional facets that need to be addressed so we can help the teachers help the kids,” he said.
Time will tell if communication and trust improve.
“We’re hoping with the agreement of this contract that we can move forward in a more collaborative vein, but actions speak louder than words and we’ll see. We’ll see where that goes,” Druce said.
Dusek stressed the priority of doing what’s best for kids.
“I think that, even though it took awhile longer than we had hoped, ultimately everybody in that room is on the same team. We’re all here to provide a quality education for every single student that walks through our door. And I do believe that was a focus throughout the entire conversation. I felt comfortable that everybody in that room ultimately had their eyes on what is best for kids,” he said.