Teachers and school district staff could strike as soon as mid-September after Tuesday’s negotiating session ended without a contract deal.
The Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association announced Wednesday a potential strike date of Sept. 16. The associations slated Sept. 16 as the earliest a strike may take place, but the announcement is not a notification that a strike will happen, President of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association David Brighton said.
Employees in the district have been without a new contract for 559 days and collective bargaining meetings between the district and two employee associations have hit a standstill.
Tuesday night, the associations sat down with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in hopes of reaching an agreement. After about two hours, the groups left the table with requests for more information, but no contract.
For over a year, contract negotiations between the school district and the associations have stalled on the rising cost of health care. On May 22, more than 75% of peninsula educators and staff voted to support a walkout.
“This step represents just how serious of an issue health care is to our educators and their families,” Brighton said in the associations’ announcement. “Until the district comes to the table with a realistic proposal that won’t bankrupt families for using their own health insurance, we’ll continue to move towards the strike we voted on in May.”
Since 2017, the district has provided employees with two options for health care benefits, which include a high-deductible plan and a traditional plan. Employees pay 10% of the costs for the high-deductible plan, and 15% of the costs for the traditional plan.
During Tuesday’s negotiations, Jesse Bjorkman, a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School and a negotiator for the associations, told the district that health care costs on the Kenai can’t compete with districts statewide. He said average monthly premiums for last year’s high-deductible plan in the Anchorage School District was $139 and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District was $165. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, those averages jump to $458 a month, he said.
The district is facing budget uncertainties from the state and a potential loss of revenue due to less enrollment, they said Tuesday.
“The fact the district isn’t getting the revenue by the state to pay the people what they want to be paid doesn’t mean we’re being disrespectful and that we don’t value the people,” Jones said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Some educators, like Soldotna High School history teacher Nathan Erfurth, say they’re very frustrated.
“I’m very frustrated by it personally,” Erfurth said. “A lot of people are. If (the process is) making progress it certainly isn’t fast enough. Every time we walk out of these (negotiation meetings) we’re trying to figure out how our families and our friends’ families are going to be affected and it’s not adding up to be good. Everyone is very concerned.”
Megan Murphy, a school counselor at Soldotna High School, has been attending many of the open negotiation meetings. She said she feels like they’ve reached a stalemate.
“I think both sides are trying, but I feel like there’s a lot of frustration,” Murphy said. “I think people are ready. I think in general, the community — everybody wants to see a solution. We’re not seeing as much forward movement as we’d like from the district and that’s frustrating a lot of people.”
Murphy said it’s hard to go years without a contract. She said she wants health care in the district to be at a similar rate to other districts in the state.
“I get it, there is a lot of financial issues that are happening right now that are problematic,” Murphy said. “I think the district and all of us could work together. We just haven’t gotten there yet.”
In the event of a strike, every school in the district will be closed, including Connections Homeschool, charter and alternative schools and distance delivery programs. District employees cannot be fired for participating in a legal strike. Associations are required to notify the superintendent 72 hours in advance. The superintendent will notify staff, parents, community partners, contractors and others of the strike’s start date.
The district and the associations are emailing each other with specific information requests and from there will determine a time to meet again in the near future, the district’s communications liaison Pegge Erkeneff said.