My Turn: How will Juneau attract new teachers?

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

I feel compelled to write regarding Thursday's article about the Juneau School District, through Mr. Wilson, unilaterally declaring impasse with its teachers. Mr. Wilson is a retired Anchorage School District administrator hired to bargain with the Juneau School District employees. It is amazing that after beginning the negotiations by committing an unfair labor practice, the district has chosen to bypass negotiations and go directly to mediation. By the superintendent's own words the district did not even counter the teachers' proposal. I understand the district's team has not conducted serious bargaining at all.

Recently, School Board President Chuck Cohen spoke, off-handedly, that rather than allow retired teachers to "double dip" he'd like to attract new teachers. How, exactly, does Mr. Cohen intend to attract these new teachers? The current starting salary of the Juneau School District is at, or below, par with most districts along the West Coast - even Oregon, which has fallen to near the bottom of average salaries in the country. The teachers' contribution to the health insurance program will approach $3,000 next year, effectively reducing the starting salary to one of the lowest on the West Coast. Again I ask how this is supposed to attract new teachers?

I am a retired teacher and I have no interest in returning to the classroom. Mr. Cohen, I am not one of your double dippers.

The district currently is advertising for eight special education positions for next year. There is a national shortage of special education teachers. I ask again, how is the Juneau School District going to attract new teachers to fill these positions? Why would they come to Juneau, one of the most expensive cities in the nation, for one of the lowest starting salaries in the teaching profession?

The school district and CBJ are working hard to convince Juneau citizens to approve additional funds to build a larger, new high school at Dimond Park. If the district is unwilling to bargain with their teachers, how are they going to staff this new high school with qualified teachers?

If the district's claim is that it can't afford to pay teachers, then where is the money to run a new facility? How much will it cost to run this new, expanded high school?

The Juneau School District is paying Mr. Wilson a considerable amount of money to negotiate with its teachers. I understand Mr. Wilson's fee is more than the salary of a beginning teacher's $32,000 salary. It is not reasonable for him to refuse to seriously bargain with the district's teachers and collect more money than the lowest paid teacher receives for their hard work. I urge the School Board to direct the district's bargaining team to go back to the table and settle this contract before we lose any more opportunity to attract new teachers.

Another issue is the reasonableness of the teacher's proposal. A 2 percent increase matches the Anchorage CPI cost of living increase. It also matches the settled contracts of many Alaska school districts this past year. Is the Juneau School Board saying that our teachers are less valued than, say, those in Kenai, Soldotna or Ketchikan? Should the efforts of our teachers, as reflected by their salaries, be penalized by decreasing the effective salaries, or should the salaries at least keep up with inflation?

By declaring impasse, the district's team refused to present the teachers' proposal to the board. The teachers should present their proposal directly to the board and the board should act favorably on it. I understand that the collective salaries and fees paid to the board's negotiating team are about what a new contract under the district's proposal would cost. Perhaps the board should reconsider its priorities as to what is really important for Juneau's students - a well-paid administration or an underpaid teaching staff.

• Retired teacher Jim Preston lives in Auke Bay.

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