By Jenny Neyman
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teachers and support staff took to street corners Oct. 14, waving at cars and holding signs seeking support in continued contract negotiations with the school district.
“I just think teachers and support, certified and classified staff deserve a fair contract and a decent living wage. And we think it’s important, and we want it to be over and have a set contract,” said Megan Murphy, who works at Soldotna High School.
The contract under negotiation was supposed to take effect at the beginning of this school year, but employees are working under the terms of the previous contract until this one gets hammered out. This is Murphy’s first time through a round of negotiations in KPBSD, but she grew up in the area with her mom working for the district, and remembers past negotiations almost coming to a strike.
“It definitely makes you feel a little, definitely not valued, to be honest,” she said. “I think that we all work here, we’re for the kids, but it’s nice to be able to go to work and know that your district supports you and is willing to pay you at cost and a good wage.”
At 4:30 p.m., demonstrators stationed themselves in front of the George A. Navarre Borough Building and at the “Y” intersection in Soldotna, at Bridge Access and the Kenai Spur Highway intersection in Kenai, and at the Poppy Lane-Kalifornsky Beach Road intersection, ahead of the bargaining meeting at 5:30 p.m. called by the employee associations.
It’s shaping up to be a repeat of the previous round of negotiations, which started in winter 2012 and concluded with arbitration 14 months later. LaDawn Druce was the president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association during the last round of negotiations. She was holding a sign at K-Beach as a school district employee this go-around, now working as a high school counselor.
“We made these signs three years ago. Time to get use out of them again,” she said.
Patti Sirois, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, said she’s frustrated with the negotiations process.
“It’s really disheartening because it seems like every time we negotiate we are out on the street corner waving our hands, and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “The children are our future, our community, and we’re a big part of this community as educators and support staff and we deserve at least the respect of negotiations.”
About 40 people packed into a classroom at Kenai Peninsula College to watch the meeting. It started with Matt Fischer, a teacher at Skyview Middle School and lead negotiator for the associations, questioning details and the intentions of the district’s latest proposal. The head of the district’s team, though — Saul Friedman, an Anchorage attorney retained by direction from the school board — wanted to get to the association’s proposals.
“We didn’t come here to provide you with information that’s contained within the various proposals. We came here to receive counters from you that hopefully will move us forward,” Friedman said.
“Well, I would kind of think that we need the information to make sure we have a good proposal for you,” Fischer said. “And I think, if we’re missing something, if this is what you guys think you are putting to us and we’re not seeing that, there’s a miscommunication here somewhere and I want to clarify any miscommunications so that we can progress.”
The stalemate lasted for about an hour.
Salary and health insurance are the two sticking points of the contracts. The district proposed maintaining the current salary schedule, though still advancing those eligible for increases in fiscal year 2016. The associations want an across-the-board salary increase to keep up with inflation.
In health care, the district proposed offering a high-deductable plan along with the current health plan, as well as the ability for an employee to opt out of the district’s plan if they have coverage elsewhere. The district’s idea is that healthier employees would save money by paying less in premiums if they don’t use many health services, and would be more conscientious of cost in making health care choices if the bill is coming out of their pocket first. The district estimates these changes could result in over $660,000 in savings to the self-funding health care plan, as well as savings to employees.
“There are employees of the bargaining teams who are paying over $3,000 a year in premiums and they may not be utilizing medical facilities and providers to any extent more than what they even have as deductibles,” Friedman said. “And for those employees we want to give them at least an option to decide what risk they want to take.”
The associations, though, are leery of creating an additional tier of the health care plan, think it would be cumbersome to set up and wouldn’t result in immediate savings. What will the overall impacts be? How will it affect the premium rates for those who stay in the traditional plan? If there are cost savings, will employees share in those? The associations also bring up the point of the so-called Cadillac tax set to go into effect in 2018, a 40 percent federal excise tax levied on high-dollar health care plans. The traditional plan might trigger that tax, Fischer said.
About an hour in, the associations called a caucus. When they reconvened, the associations presented the district with their proposals. On health care, there would not be two separate plans, but one high-deductable plan for all employees. Single employees would pay a $1,500 deductible, and families $3,000. After that, the district would pick up 80 percent of the tab until the out-of-pocket limit is reached, at which point the district would pay 100 percent.
“We do think there’s benefit through people thinking about what they’re going to purchase with their insurance money,” Fischer said. “We do think that people are more conscious if money’s coming out of their pocket first.”
The district had proposed contributing $750 per employee to the Health Reserve Account, which funds the plan. The associations proposed the district only contribute $1 per employee, with the idea that that would free up funds to put toward increases in the salary schedule. The teachers’ union proposes a 2 percent increase, while support staff proposes 1 percent the first year of a proposed two-year contract, and another 1 percent the second year.
Both associations also gave other options the district could offer instead of the full, proposed salary increases. For the teachers, the district could give a 1.5 percent salary increase and an additional personal day, or a 1 percent increase and two personal days, for instance. Or, support staff suggests the ability to cash in an extra personal day.
“Our theory is not that we get everything in here. Our theory is throwing you guys some options,” Fischer said. “… So, ball’s in your court. I truly, honestly believe we gave you a proposal there that’s within what’s been budgeted for this year. Hopefully, we’ll finally have a counter that we can take a look at.”
Friedman asked whether the associations would be open to still allowing employees to opt out of health coverage. Fischer said they would. He also said the district would have to carefully consider the proposal to cover 100 percent of costs after the out-of-pocket limit is reached.
“That puts the district in the position of being responsible for every increase in the health care plan,” he said. “… You’ve given us a lot to think about, to review, to analyze, to cost out. We’ll do it quickly. As quickly as we can.”
Once the district considers the proposals it will contact the associations to meet again and either accept the proposals, offer a counter or simply reject them and call for arbitration.