By Jenny Neyman
The mood outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offices in the George A. Navarre Borough Building at 5:30 p.m. Monday was festive, at times feeling more like a school field trip than a rally to demonstrate the district employees’ willingness to stand up for better pay and health care benefits in ongoing contract negotiations, to the point of being willing to strike.
A tent set up behind the parking lot housed a table full of snacks — cookies, chips, beverages and hot dogs fresh off a grill. A vehicle parked nearby with its hatchback open was stuffed with signs for rally attendees to choose from, with slogans such as, “Fair Contract Now!” “Stand up for Schools,” “Pay it Forward,” “World Class Staff,” “Students are our priority” and, “Honk if you love teachers.”
LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, and Margie Warner, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, welcomed the couple hundred rally participants, some of which came by school bus from Seward and Homer.
Two representatives of the Matanuska-Susitna School District’s classified association also attended to show solidarity with their KPBSD colleagues.
“Mat-Su feels your pain. We were 400 plus days without a contract, so we know exactly what you’re going through, and we totally agree that you deserve a fair contract, a cost of living wage (increase), and we’re here to support you in any way that we can,” said Lorie Miner, the Mat-Su classified association president.
Ron Fuhrer, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, also attended.
“NEA-Alaska wants you to know that we support KPESA and KPEA members and, unfortunately, this has to occur because of flat funding from the state the last three years, which is unacceptable for the future of our students,” he said. “… The bottom line is, nothing else is flat. The costs increase. We need money from the state Legislature.”
Rally participants were there to make a statement to district administration, the community and the KPBSD Board of Education, meeting inside, that employees want a quick and fair resolution to ongoing contract negotiations, currently in arbitration. The negotiating teams for KPEA and KPESA are proposing that district salaries be linked to the Consumer Price Index for Anchorage, to make sure they keep up with inflation, and that health care costs be split, with the district paying 85 percent and employees 15 percent.
Rally attendees wanted the statement to be seen and heard, so Druce, true to her teacher background, led the crowd in a few practice cheers before sending them to march up and down Binkley Street.
“OK, here we go, here’s some chants. Ready? I always wanted to be a cheerleader, this is my moment. When I say ‘Union’ you say ‘Power.’ Union,” Druce called.
“Power!” the crowd answered.
“OK, that’s excellent. Very good, you’re learning,” she said, to whoops from the crowd.
An hour and a half later, when the board of education meeting convened in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers, the mood was much different. Gone were the jokes, smiles and enthusiastic waves to passing motorists, replaced by emphatic pleas for a resolution to contract negotiations, told in personal stories of financial challenges and tinged with a sense of frustration over not feeling valued and adequately compensated by the district. About 40 people addressed the board, both in person and in the form of letters read by colleagues.
Michele Carver, president of the parent-teacher-student association at Nikiski High School, spoke from the perspective of a parent.
“The teachers are my eyes and ears out of my home where my children spend their day, and those teachers are accountable for my children throughout the day and what they teach them. … If we love these folks, lets put our money where our mouth is and start making change,” she said.
Breta Brown, a teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School, supported the associations’ demand for a consistent, unchanging split in health care premiums.
“We deserve a fair contract, we deserve a good health care plan and benefit package that won’t steal from our families that work so hard for the students of the KPBSD,” she said.
Many others voiced the concern that their salaries haven’t kept up with inflation, and that they essentially are making about what they were 20 years ago, when adjusting for inflation. Sherry Matson, a teacher at Nikiski North Star Elementary, said that not only her doctor and dentist, but her mechanic, plumber and roofer all charge more per hour than she makes.
“We’re all concerned that our support staff don’t get a living wage, and many teachers also hold second jobs. That’s not fair or generous,” Matson said, parroting a phrase district negotiators have used to describe their last, best offer to the associations.
“There aren’t many employees in the district, especially of the classified persuasion, that can earn a living on a district salary. We must have a summer job, a second and/or a third job during the school year, just to make ends meet. And we stretch those ends really, really tight,” Warner said. “… It seems in the past 12 years I’ve worked for the district that we are continuously told we must do more with less. I believe the children in our district deserve the best that we can give them, which in turn means a paycheck we can live on, so we aren’t forced to work more than one job, so we can concentrate on the children of KPBSD.”
Longtime teachers spoke of considering leaving the district for higher-paying positions elsewhere. Likewise, new teachers mentioned being concerned that they wouldn’t be able to stay because their salaries weren’t paying their bills. Others spoke of concern that bright, new teachers, experienced veteran educators and area graduates interested in education wouldn’t want to come work at KPBSD unless things change.
Wayne Floyd, a 23-year teacher at Nikiski North Star, said he’s stuck with the profession out of his love for it, though he’s made more as a farm mechanic, welder, fisherman and in other trades. He hopes other teachers won’t have to sacrifice higher pay for a career they love.
“Enough is you don’t have to work two extra jobs, which I do. Enough is you can plan on your retirement being there so that you can do the things that that season of life should allow you to do. … I am going to take care of those kids (his students) regardless of what you do to me. But I’m just asking … realize that a just and fair wage is important for employee morale. We’ll take care of the kids, probably regardless of what you do to us, but please take care of us,” he said.
Cheri Johnson has worn a variety of hats in her 17 years at Kenai Central High School, from team-teaching special-needs students to health class, getting highly certified in language arts to fill that hole at the school, coaching drama, writing her own curriculum to teach advanced-placement English and teaching French.
“We have been asked to do so many things so many times. I can’t tell you in the 17 years that I’ve taught the number of different classes that I’ve been asked to teach,” she said. “… And I’ll live with that, but I want to live with a fair wage and I want to not see my health care eating up everything that I’m doing. So please, for all of us, settle this, and settle it with all of us in mind.”
Johnson said she remembers when a previous round of contract negotiations stalemated, about 10 years ago, and employees almost went on strike.
“We remember how it felt to sit there day after day after day and know that we weren’t worth a contract. We’re feeling that again and we don’t want to feel it anymore. So we’re asking you to also stand up for schools, put your money where your mouth is. If we are truly the teachers who are creating the best scores in the state then we should have the best wage,” she said.
Druce noted her appreciation for the collective bargaining process and that employees could voice their views directly to school board members.
“We appreciate the opportunity to collectively bargain, an opportunity that many of our colleagues around this country have lost in recent months. I have never lost sight of that throughout this process. As difficult as things are, I am still grateful, very grateful, for the opportunity to collectively bargain our contract. And I will always be grateful for that and thank you for that opportunity and I appreciate a state that gives us that opportunity,” she said.
“We are here tonight as a result of the district not bringing forward an acceptable proposal for us, as the leaders of the associations and bargaining team members, to take back to our members. …
Every person out here tonight and every person in this district is hard-working, dedicated employees, many of them sacrificing so much for their students in the classrooms. What we are asking for is fair. The district has the money to afford our proposal. Please, as a school board, direct the district to return to the table and settle a fair contract so that we can all begin working together for the benefit of our students,” Druce said.
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