Juneau's teachers, working without a contract so far this school year, are stepping up public pressure on the school district.
Nonbinding arbitration is scheduled for Oct. 1 to resolve the contract dispute. The teachers' two-year contract ended June 30. Teachers make from $33,591 to $64,694 a year.
If both parties don't accept the arbitrator's decision, the district and the teachers are obligated to meet at least once to resolve the dispute. If they can't reach an agreement, the district is entitled to impose its last, best offer, and the teachers can strike.
"I'm hopeful that neither of those scenarios plays out," said Willie Anderson, a staff member of NEA-Alaska, the statewide teachers union.
Schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan said she believes the parties are close to an agreement.
"We think this process will bring us closer, so we're hopeful for resolution," she said.
Negotiations between the district and the Juneau Education Association, representing about 350 teachers, librarians and counselors, have been at an impasse since mid-May. Mediation failed in late May.
About 200 teachers demonstrated outside the school district's office on Glacier Avenue at the start of the Juneau School Board meeting Tuesday night. And some teachers spent the Juneau-Douglas High School open house Wednesday evening outside the school, talking to parents about their contract concerns.
"We don't have a contract, so we'd like one. We'd like one badly, soon," said teacher Casady Herding outside the district office Tuesday.
Some teachers demonstrating Tuesday carried signs saying they didn't want to strike, but would do so. Teachers previously authorized their union to call a strike.
Teachers, in their final offer during negotiations in May, asked for 2 percent increases in the salary schedule's rates, an increase in the district's contribution toward health-insurance premiums from $550 a month per person to $635, and an increase in elementary teachers' preparation time from at least 150 minutes a week to 250 minutes.
Teachers now pay the equivalent of $243 a month toward health-insurance premiums of $793, said Anderson of NEA-Alaska.
The district has said it's willing to pay $85 more a month for the premiums.
The School Board also recently authorized teachers to move up what are called the steps and columns of the salary schedule this school year, even without a new contract. The previous contract, negotiated in 2001, was intended to free up money to allow for movement up the schedule without it being negotiated with each contract.
The schedule pays eligible teachers more money for added years of experience and further college credits. Union officials said this spring that about 30 percent of teachers have reached the top point of the schedule. Those teachers would make more money only if the salary schedule's pay rates are raised, or if new steps are added to top end of the schedule.
"They haven't offered anything except step and column," teacher negotiator Sara Hannan said Tuesday of movement up the schedule. "Our step and column funds itself."
The school district's new one-year contracts with administrators - such as principals - and support staff - such as custodians and instructional assistants - included movement up the salary schedule and $85 more a month toward health-insurance premiums.
Cowan said the district is interested in equity among the collective bargaining units, and has budgeted for higher district payments for health-insurance premiums for the teachers.
Kevin Hamrick, a teachers union negotiator, addressed the School Board on Tuesday, saying he was speaking as a parent and community member. He said there are ways to save money without cutting teachers and services. He cited the money the district is spending on a consultant during teacher negotiations.
"Every time we talk about budget cuts, it's how many teachers are we going to cut," Hamrick said.
The district reduced about $1.74 million from this school year's budget to balance it. The district, in a budget document, listed movement up the salary schedule and increased health-insurance premiums for all employees as major cost increases.
Among the cuts were the equivalent of about six teaching positions, early afternoon kindergarten buses, after-school activity buses, and delays in buying textbooks.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.