Teachers, District far apart in labor talks

The Juneau School District and its teachers are still nearly $10 million apart on a new contract.


Both sides submitted briefs detailing their final, “best-offer” proposals to an arbitrator Friday. Union officials with the Juneau Education Association said Tuesday several core priorities must be met if a teachers strike is to be avoided.

At the top of the association’s list is a cost-of-living increase, multi-year contract, maintaining an unabridged health insurance program and having safety and security requests met by the district.

“We’re not going to leave any members behind,” said Willie Anderson, the UniServ Director for the Alaska branch of the National Education Association.

Several items on the JEA’s “wish list,” such as more paid leave for union business, were bargaining chips and wouldn’t be deal-breakers should the school district refuse to oblige.

“This isn’t a point we intend to settle on,” Anderson said of the union’s submitted brief.

The cost-of-living increase is where the two sides are struggling the most to find common ground.

The teachers union believes the school district budgeted for more positions than currently filled, meaning there’s an extra $4 million in budget salaries that could be applied to increasing teachers’ salaries without eliminating positions. Officials with the school district, who also spoke to the Empire on Tuesday, say they’ve invited the union’s bargaining team to a sit-down next week to go over the budget to show them that no such surplus exists.

“That is factually not correct,” Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said of the JEA’s interpretation of the budget. “To fund their proposal we’d be looking at another $10 million in reductions over the next three years, and to reduce another $10 million it’s going to be people.”

With the district spending 99 percent of its approximately $77.85 million budget each year, there just isn’t a way to pay the teachers more without making cuts to current programs and staff, Gelbrich said.


The school district offer

On Nov. 18, bargaining teams from both sides met and the district presented a three-year contract offer that would increase salaries for teachers with master’s degrees — approximately 88 percent of school district’s teachers — for the first two years before reopening negotiations on wages and benefits in the third year.

Some Juneau teachers — depending on experience and education level — have highly competitive salaries compared to other districts around the state, while some pay brackets are lower than their counterparts elsewhere, Gelbrich said.

This proposal increases salaries for those lower than their counterparts and “encourages education movement to the Master’s level,” he said.

Still, the teachers union objected to the offer because it moves money from the benefits package to their salaries. Currently, if a teacher opts out of district health insurance, the district still contributes its portion to the plan, which then lowers the employee contribution for district workers who do participate in the insurance program.

The result of applying about $575,000 in health insurance waiver money to employees’ premiums meant employees didn’t start paying premiums on their insurance last year until late-spring.

Under the district’s proposal, the money used to pay a portion of the employees’ health insurance premiums would instead be diverted to pay for salary increases of 1 percent in the first year of a new contract and 1.5 percent in the second. The union tabbed the offer “regressive” and “divisive” because it benefited only a portion of union members.

“It feels like they’re reaching into my wallet for money that’s been a savings to me and saying, ‘Here’s a pay increase in another way,’” Juneau Education Association Vice-President Dirk Miller said.

Anderson said running the math of this proposal for a teacher making $60,000 a year results in a value reduction of 2 percent in salary, because the health insurance savings they would receive over a six-month period accounts for 3 percent of their salary.

“It’s a loss for our membership,” Anderson added.

The district offer also would change the personal leave provision to allow teachers up to four days of paid time off that can carry over each year, up to a maximum of 10 days. Any unused days beyond the 10 would be “bought back” by the district at a rate of $150 per day. Teachers would also be able to cash out their unused leave days at the same rate at their discretion.

Currently, the district allows five days of personal leave annually, but a teacher has to pay $110 per day for a substitute after the first two days are used. If a teacher has four or five days left over at the end of the year, they are paid a $150 lump sum. Currently the days do not carry-over each year.

The district’s proposal rejected union language that would increase paid leave time for union business, and it did not include putting an emergency phone line in the teachers’ contract.

“There are consequences to kids for everything we move from the classroom and programs to put more money to teachers,” Gelbrich said. “Whatever we do to add to our No. 1 cost (personnel costs) is going to magnify the effects of other budget cuts.”


The teachers’ wish

The original proposal from the Juneau Education Association would have cost the district $26.6 million over the life of a three-year contract. Since then, the union has reduced its proposal to the current $10.1 million offer, which largely hinges on salary increases of two percent in the first and third years, and three percent in the second year.

Teachers felt deceived when school district officials announced an ending-fund balance of about $750,000 earlier this year after contract negotiations stalled last year because the district said there was not any additional room in the budget to pay for teacher salary increases, Miller said.

“It’s hard to hear them say there’s no money in the budget to pay for teachers raises, because what is a budget? A spending plan,” he said. “It sounds to me like they’re not planning to spend money for teachers.”

About $700,000 of that surplus ended up being used to balance this year’s budget after final student enrollment numbers ended up shorter than expected.

The union’s proposed change to the personal leave component entails keeping the five days of paid leave, but taking away the requirement for teachers to pay for their substitutes. The offer also entails allowing the employee to cash out unused leave at $150 per day. It also calls for the district to contribute 4 percent of tier III teachers’ annual salaries into a retirement account, and increases the amount of paid leave time for teachers conducting union business to at least 75 days off per year.

Another section details making the Juneau Education Association president a half-time teacher, where the district pays for the classroom hours while the union pays for the time conducting union business.

The components requiring increased allowances for union business have not been met with much support from across the table.

“We don’t believe public funds should be used to fund union business,” Gelbrich said.

He added that the district opposes those components for reasons beyond finances, as well.

“We’re trying to keep the team of teachers we interviewed and picked in the classrooms,” Gelbrich said.

The final component of the union proposal — which Anderson said could be a strike-inducing item — is a safety and security matter for teachers.

That is the “Batphone” request, as Miller described it, which would either be a special phone or phone line that has a different ring tone in the central office that teachers use in the event of an emergency.

“We want to have the capacity to call the central office and have someone pick up the phone in an emergency,” Anderson said,

Such a system is already operational across the district, Gelbrich said, but the district believes that is a school policy or administrative policy issue — not something that should be in the collective bargaining contract.

Teachers want it in the contract so they can make sure it exists and works at every school, all the time.

“To have it in the contract we can then enforce it,” Anderson said, noting that the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting is coming up.


Juneau and other districts

The increases in both the district and union offers would be in addition to step and column pay increases which teachers get every year for adding a year of experience or clearing a higher education threshold — such as completing a Master’s program.

Over the past four years, Juneau’s most highly compensated teachers — those with Master’s degrees and at least 18 years of credited experience — saw salary increases of 9 percent, equal to the increase in cost-of-living in Anchorage.

Meanwhile, teachers with Master’s degrees who started the same time period with zero and five years experiences saw salary increases of 25 and 24 percent, respectfully.

“It isn’t really intended to be a cost-of-living increase — it’s more about service and experience, but you’ll hear from the teachers’ union that that doesn’t count,” Gelbrich said of the step-pay increases. “If you ask the public what a raise is, they’ll say, ‘When I make more than last year.’”

An entry-level teacher with just a Bachelor’s degree and no relevant experience starts at $46,063 per year, and a teacher with a Master’s with no experience starts at $50,931 per year. Teachers 18 years of experience to go along with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree are paid $68,328 and $84,112 per year, respectfully. Numbers vary slightly depending on when the teacher was hired.

Still, the union is not willing to accept any offer from the district that doesn’t include pay increases for all of its members. The district’s Nov. 18 offer included pay increases for 317 of the union’s 359 teachers.

“You’re essentially throwing 12 percent of our members under the bus,” Anderson said of the offer.

The district contends that while Juneau teachers may not have the highest salaries across the board, the benefits package more than makes up the gap.

Charts provided by the district coincide with information provided by the union show that salaries are slightly lower compared to Achorage, Kenai, Sitka and Ketchikan. In the highest pay bracket Juneau is head of Ketchikan. When benefits and compensation are factored in the landscape changes, however.

Juneau ranks second in total compensation behind only Anchorage in entry and mid-level positions. In the highest tier, Juneau is third to Anchorage and Kenai.

“We’re just not willing to do that when we have a fairly competitive package out there already,” Gelbrich said of large, across-the-board increases.


Tensions rising

Early last week, teachers around the district emailed parents saying they would be changing their availability to students and parents by not being accessible outside their contract day, which typically runs from 30 minutes before the first class to 30 minutes after the final bell.

Monday, several music teachers emailed parents saying they were cancelling winter concerts and performances due to the ongoing labor dispute and the fact they are not contracted to hold concerts.

Both sets of emails asked parents and citizens to voice their thoughts on the matter and their concerns about the impacts the changes would have at the next school board meeting Dec. 17.

“It’s not an unusual union strategy during collective bargaining to put pressure on the district and public by cutting back on things,” Gelbrich said.

He added that the reductions do have an impact on the students.

“The impact is felt by families and the kids,” he said. “It is important to remember those decisions are made by teachers encouraged by the union. They are not made by us.”

Some extracurricular programs such as sports and after-school care are not subject to such cancellations due to extra-duty contracts teachers have signed with the district separate from their teaching contracts.

Doing more extra-duty contracts for things like the concerts is possible, but wouldn’t be free, Gelbrich said.

Teachers have cited the district’s lack of mobility at the bargaining table as the primary reason for the cancellations and changing of availability.

Last week at a “Strike Preparation” general union membership meeting, the teachers passed an authorization vote by a large margin that allows the group’s executive leadership to bring the body in for a vote to strike.

That vote likely represents the percentage of teachers who would be willing to strike if their demands aren’t met, Anderson said.

But a potential strike is still “months” away due to legal requirements and time frames, he added.

“I’ve been through job actions,” Anderson said. “There are no winners in those.”

Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.


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