Kenai educators prepared to work through the night to prevent Tuesday strike

Teachers rally with hours left to reach a contract agreement before going on strike. [Photo courtesy of KTUU] (Sept. 16, 2019)
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KENAI PENINSULA, Alaska (KTUU) - Update, 2:45 p.m.: The clock is ticking for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to hammer out a contract proposal to meet teachers' demands and prevent a strike.

The Kenai Peninsula Education Association issued its 72-hour notice of intent to strike on Friday evening, citing concerns that the district's current offer has not lowered healthcare premiums as requested. According to KPBSD spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff, the district's negotiating team worked through the weekend on a counter-offer, and those efforts continued as of Monday afternoon.

Erkeneff says KPBSD teachers and support staff have the highest healthcare costs of any district in Alaska. For the 2018 - 2019 school year, teachers chose either of two plans: the Kenai Traditional Health Plan (costing the district $23,081), or the Kenai High Deductible Health Plan (costing the district $21,245). That's compared to a $20,928 district healthcare contribution for the Mat-Su, and $20,340 for Anchorage.

The Kenai Peninsula Education Association's Sept. 5 proposal, which expired 4 p.m. Friday, would have increased the district's annual healthcare contribution to $27,076, according to Erkeneff.

There currently is not a set time for negotiations to continue. Erkeneff says the school board is holding an executive session to consider an updated proposal to present to educators, but did not provide details on what that proposal would entail.

Theoretically, both sides have until 7 a.m. Tuesday morning to come to an agreement. KPEA President David Brighton told Channel 2 educators are prepared to work through the night to reach an agreement and prevent a strike.

Original Story:

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and its educators are hoping for a contract resolution after teachers issued a 72-hour notice to strike Friday evening. If they do not reach an agreement, the strike will shut down all 42 schools in the district beginning 7 a.m. Tuesday.

"Starting Tuesday, parents need to plan for an emergency school closure, until further notice," KPBSD’s Pegge Erkeneff cautioned.

575 days of negotiation and still no contract -- this has driven KPBSD teachers to issue their official intent to strike. Both sides want to avoid school shutdowns, but high healthcare costs make the odds of reaching a resolution uncertain.

"Educators are very frustrated that they've worked an entire year without a contract, and now we're going back to work, still without this contract settled,” President of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association David Brighton said. “We’re halfway through a 3-year contract term that hasn’t even been finalized.”

KPEA had an offer on the table which expired at 4 p.m. Friday, according to Brighton. Erkeneff says the district was working on what they thought was a promising counter-proposal when teachers issued their intent to strike.

Erkeneff says the district’s last offer added over $1 million to increase teacher salaries at the beginning of each school year. However, healthcare seems to be the enduring point of contention.

"Finding some fair solution for both sides, recognizing that the cost of healthcare is rising, has been a challenge," Erkeneff said. “Bridging that gap has continued to be the sticking point.”

Both sides have agreed to a more affordable, high-deductible health plan -- but questions remain around how much employees should contribute. Brighton says the inability to reach an agreement around medical coverage is causing teachers to look elsewhere for jobs.

“We saw 86 certified staff members leave our school district last year. That harms our student learning even more,” Brighton said. “The uncertainty of healthcare -- and the affordability of it moving forward -- has more and more teachers thinking about leaving this district."

"They're ready to stand up and say 'Enough is enough. We need affordable healthcare now,'" Brighton continued. “We don't want to wait another week, or two, or three ... We want to have a resolution so we can continue focusing on educating children."

Erkeneff emphasized the crucial role that teachers play in the lives of students and communities on the Kenai Peninsula, and how important it is to the district to reach an agreement.

"That's a number-one priority, to continue working together to find a solution and reach a tentative agreement and end this strike -- or prevent it from happening," Erkeneff said.

KPBSD negotiation and finance teams are working on a counter-proposal in hopes of ending the dispute before the school board’s executive session Monday evening. Ultimately, it's the board that will ratify any kind of tentative agreement.

If the strike does happen, Erkeneff says the district will provide families with daily updates on the progress of negotiations.

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