Protest signs hang on the entryway wall at the Kenai Peninsula Education Association office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Protest signs hang on the entryway wall at the Kenai Peninsula Education Association office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

School district, unions send tentative 1-year contract to membership

The agreements include raises and more money for employee health care

Members of the unions that represent the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s certified and support staff will begin voting Wednesday on a tentative, one-year extension of their employment agreement, district and union leadership said Tuesday.

The tentative agreement includes 3.5% raises for certified staff, 6% raises for support staff — the largest year-over-year percentage increase for both groups since at least fiscal year 2011 — and a $200 increase to the amount of money both types of employees receive upfront to pay for health care. That amount is referred to as an employee’s health reimbursement account (HRA) and health savings account (HSA).

“(Employees) get what equates to be a debit card, with $800 on it,” said KPBSD Human Resources Director Nate Crabtree. “So when you go to the doctor, you get medicine, you get eyeglasses, you get something that qualifies under our health care plan, you can use that debit card until that $800 is gone.”

The tentative agreement also includes one change each to the agreement language for the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, which represents KPBSD’s certified staff, and the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association, which represents KPBSD’s support staff.

In the proposed KPEA agreement, the new language would clarify that teachers doing any type of work for KPBSD will be paid their per diem rate. That’s as opposed to the $150 per day flat rate that teachers are currently paid in some situations when participating in KPBSD activities outside of their regularly contracted days.

An example of that type of work, Crabtree said, would be a new teacher participating in an in-service day, as part of which they are brought in a day before their regular contract begins. It’s not technically a work day and that teacher is not with students. Where that teacher had previously been paid $150 for that in-service day, they would now be compensated at their regular per diem rate.

Crabtree said in all cases, employees affected by the change will be compensated at a higher rate than the $150 per diem amount.

The proposed KPESA agreement makes permanent $5 per hour raises for school nurses. Those raises were first approved in 2020 as the district sought to fill nursing vacancies during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the raises were extended through the end of fiscal year 2024, which runs through June 30.

Permanently building the $5 per hour increase into the salary schedule for KPBSD nurses means the amount will not need to be repeatedly renewed.

The tentative agreements will be put before union members less than one month after the collective bargaining process officially kicked off, which both district and union leadership said is expedient. For the first time in KPBSD’s history, the agreements being submitted to union members are a one-year extension of employees’ existing contracts, rather than an entirely new, three-year contract.

Crabtree said the district’s pursuit of a one-year extension, albeit with some changes, is in part a response to uncertainty surrounding state funding for K-12 education.

KPBSD, like other districts in Alaska, is facing a budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year to the tune of about $13 million. The district used federal COVID-19 relief funds, money from savings, budget cuts and one-time funding from the State of Alaska to offset a similar deficit during its last budget cycle.

KPBSD has steadfastly lobbied the State of Alaska for a meaningful increase to the amount of money districts receive per student, called the base student allocation. That amount, apart from a $30 increase approved with the Alaska Reads Act, has remained unchanged since fiscal year 2017.

KPEA President LaDawn Druce said it’s not yet clear what the pros and cons of a one-year, rather than three-year, contract are, because the extension would be a first for KPBSD staff. She pointed to the Anchorage School District, where a one-year contract was approved in December 2023.

“Looking at what could be the proposed budget from the state, it just did not look very promising for public education and we are all in the same boat for retention and recruitment,” Druce said. “Knowing that, I think this idea grew from that understanding and a sense of ‘Maybe this is a good course to look at for one year.’”

The real gauge of whether a one-year contract extension is palatable to KPBSD staff, though, will be how the votes come down.

KPESA President Susanna Litwiniak said that, while the proposed agreement doesn’t address everything that her members want, she thinks votes will come down in favor of the agreement, with the understanding that it is a “starting point.”

“I think that, as a starting point, it’s a really good place to start,” she said.

Druce is said it’s hard to predict where employees will come down. She said her membership may be skeptical of the one-year extension model and of the collaborative approach to bargaining the associations and district have taken during the negotiation process.

“It’s new, it’s different, it’s working with the district rather than oppositional-type bargaining,” she said.

Druce, Litwiniak and Crabtree said working together prevented the process from becoming contentious and allowed for a tentative agreement to be reached quickly.

“We all are coming from a place of ‘What can we do that’s going to be best for the students,’” Litwiniak said. “The more that we can remember that, the more I think that we can work together and that it is clear that it doesn’t need to be adversarial. In fact, when we’re working together, we’re more likely to do what’s best for students.”

Voting for KPEA and KPESA members on the tentative agreements will start Wednesday and be open for three full days. A simple majority of the voting members in each association is required to approve the respective contracts.

If a majority of voting members support the tentative agreement, it could advance to the KPBSD Board of Education for approval as early as Feb. 4. If one or both contracts are rejected by the voting members, the bargaining team for the respective association will go back to the drawing board with KPBSD.

Results from the vote on the two proposed agreements are expected by the end of the day on Saturday.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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