This week, the arbitrator involved in contract negotiations between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association released his report, including his recommendations on contractual issues that had been sticking points for more than a year.
In a nutshell, arbitrator Gary Axon found valid points in both sides’ positions, as well as some not so valid points, and his recommendations in most places seek to split the difference. While there may be items in his recommendations that can be nitpicked, we wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation made in his conclusion — that it is in everyone’s best interests that the district and associations close a contract without further delay.
Certainly, both sides have the right to hold out for the best deal possible. But after well over a year at the bargaining table, it is clear that neither side is going to walk away entirely thrilled with the deal. Such is the nature of collective bargaining in uncertain financial times.
That uncertainty is something mentioned by Axon a number of times throughout his report. The arbitrator noted, for example, that he recommended a three-year agreement rather than the four-year deal proposed by the district because it was too long in a time of “economic flux.”
On health care, the arbitrator acknowledges the district’s need to reduce health care costs as the current plan is unsustainable, but found the district’s proposal goes too far, too fast in shifting costs to employees, particularly when proposed raises are minimal.
Likewise on salary and wage issues, the arbitrator rejected the associations’ suggested use of the general fund balance — the district’s savings account — to continue to cover the costs of raises and other expenditures. The recommendation to adopt the district’s proposal — some changes — was made to give the district some “breathing room to adjust to the rapidly changing economic picture in Alaska, as illustrated by Governor Walker’s veto of the education budget bill.”
Teachers and support staff already are into their second school year working under the status quo from the previous agreement, which expired at the end of the school year in 2015. With so much of Alaska’s fiscal situation uncertain, it would make sense for the school district and its employees to create some certainty at the local level with a new agreement.
As we said, when money is tight, it’s hard for anyone to walk away from the bargaining table entirely satisfied. But at this point, the arbitrator’s recommendations represent reasonable solutions to disputes that school district and employee association negotiators have not been able to solve themselves.