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Empire Editorial: The $10M elephant in the room

Posted: December 13, 2013 - 1:07am

The Juneau School District and its teachers’ union have been combing over the same budget for months now, yet the two sides are seeing an entirely different financial picture.

At the core of the dispute is how each side is interpreting the budget which, if not resolved, could lead to a strike. The Juneau Education Association believes there is money to be had for raises and argues the district is simply refusing to oblige. District officials assert there’s no money to be had, and any new increases to accommodate cost of living for teachers will come at the expense of current programs and future staff cuts.

This difference has left the two sides $10 million apart and has led to some teachers working only contract hours and the cancellation of some winter concerts and other after-school activities. Teachers are trying to prove a point by working only their contracted hours, but it’s the parents and students who are now being impacted by their frustration.

The base pay for most teachers has increased between 9 and 25 percent in the last four years, and even though salaries are slightly lower than counterparts in Anchorage, Kenai, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, when benefits are factored in it shows a very different picture. With benefits included, Juneau’s teachers are among the best compensated in Alaska.

Since 2004, insurance premiums for teachers rose from $800 to $1,800; the district’s portion has increased on par with premiums while the teachers’ portion has held steady. In fact, in 2013 teachers contributed less than they did in 2004. JEA has played a major role keeping costs down. Maximum out-of-pocket expenses for union members is capped at $265, compared to $2,250 for non-union employees classified as “exempt.”

Step increases assure a pay raise each year for teachers with up to 18 years of service, and column increases go into play when a teacher acquires higher-level training such as obtaining a master’s degree. These step and column increases constitute a 2-3 percent increase annually. A pay raise is a pay raise no matter what you want to call it, but teachers believe strongly that they should receive an additional cost of living increase on top of that.

Anyone working in the private sector knows that you don’t automatically get a pay increase on the anniversary of your start date, yet that is what the teachers’ union is lobbying for. If the school district’s assessment of its budget be accurate, then pay increases will come at the expense of union members who won’t have a job next year when classes start.

One point argued by the JEA is that the school district lied last year when it said there was no money for raises because a $750,000 surplus was announced in October. What they may be forgetting is that surplus was used to balance this year’s budget after an expected enrollment shortfall came to light. Had raises been given last year and there not been a surplus to rely on, the district would have had to cut a dozen or so jobs, some of them teaching positions, to balance its budget. The district can always opt to pay teachers more, but it will be paying more to fewer and class sizes will balloon as a result. Larger class sizes is a losing situation for teachers and students — ultimately it’s something that should be avoided.

The Base Student Allotment provided by the state hasn’t increased in years, and may not next year or the year after that. Meanwhile, the basic costs to keep schools functional is on the rise. Energy and utility costs have increased $800,000 since 2010. The district’s cost to keep schools open has increased as well as the teachers’ living expenses. Several lawmakers have said they intend to make increasing the BSA a top priority when the Legislature convenes in January, but without knowing the outcome it’s hard to predict whether or not the district will see an increase in state funding. Not knowing is hard to budget for.

The JEA doesn’t like the district’s proposal that would give raises of 1 and 1.5 percent in the first and second years of a new contract because the raise actually diverts money from cost savings on insurance premiums into salaries. The only people who will benefit are teachers not paying into the district’s healthcare plan. Everyone else would see the equivalent of about a 2 to 3 percent decrease in pay.

We agree this isn’t the way to go. The Juneau School District offers an excellent benefit package for teachers and should do all it can to keep it that way.

We don’t see how the school district can absorb an additional $10 million in teachers salaries over the next three years without making some drastic cuts. It has already cut $11.8 million from its budget in recent years, and we would hate to see what another cut like that would have on jobs or student services and programs.

Teachers need to have long-term stability, and giving teachers a long-term contract is the best way to accomplish that. But doing so to the tune of $10 million could bring with it catastrophic consequences that will leave JEA with fewer members to negotiate for when its time to head back to the meeting table.

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