A last-ditch offer by the Juneau School District on Wednesday morning was rejected by the teachers union as a step backward and the parties entered into nonbinding arbitration for the rest of the day, union officials said in the late afternoon.
Teachers who demonstrated Wednesday said they are serious about a strike. Dozens of teachers waved signs along Egan Drive near the Douglas Bridge and at the district's central office on Glacier Avenue.
Anatoly Khmelev, a physical education teacher at Auke Bay Elementary, carried a sign that read, "I don't want to strike, but I will."
"Summertime, I have to work for Princess Tours to pay my bills," he said. "A lot of teachers have to work summers."
The arbitrator, Alan Krebs of Sammamish, Wash., took testimony from the district and the union Wednesday and will receive written arguments and supporting documents from the parties by early November. The district will know by then exactly how much state money it will receive for this school year.
The arbitrator may render a decision about the disputed contract terms by early December. But the district and teachers don't have to accept it. If they can't reach an agreement, the district is allowed to impose its last best offer and teachers are allowed to strike.
Members of the Juneau Education Association - which represents about 350 teachers, counselors, librarians, psychologists and occupational, speech and physical therapists - have been working without a contract this school year. Their latest contract, which included raises for two years, expired in June.
Even without a contract this year, the district moved eligible teachers up the salary schedule, which rewards teachers for added experience and college credits with pay increases of roughly $1,300. But about 30 percent of teachers have reached the maximum level on the schedule and don't receive those raises.
Teachers have asked for a 2 percent increase to the schedule's rates, a larger district contribution toward monthly health insurance premiums and more preparation time for elementary school teachers.
JEA President Ben Kriegmont, a Gastineau Elementary teacher, said the district opened the arbitration Wednesday by asking for an immediate mediation session. He said the district offered a two-year contract with increased rates on the salary schedule in the second year, but with less of an increase in the district's contribution to health insurance premiums in the first year than it had offered other unions. The district's offer didn't mention teacher preparation time, he said.
"It seems like we go a step forward and a step back," Kriegmont said, comparing the district's latest offer with earlier offers.
Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan, in an interview Wednesday evening, wouldn't discuss details of the district's offer. But she said, "We did ask for more mediation to see if we could come to an agreement, and we didn't."
The district reached agreement last spring on one-year contracts with support staff and administrators. Eligible employees moved up their salary schedule. But the rates on the salary schedules didn't go up, except for some support staff jobs that were reclassified at higher pay. The district also agreed to pay $85 more a month per employee for health insurance premiums.
District officials have said, in public comments during negotiations, that they want to treat all employees equally.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.