Teachers, district reach tentative 1-year agreement

Union now will ask district to start negotiations for next year

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2003

Negotiators for the Juneau School District and the teachers' union have reached a tentative agreement for a one-year contract that gives teachers the raises they asked for.

Members of the Juneau Education Association - which includes about 360 teachers, librarians, counselors and other specialists - had threatened to strike if they didn't get a favorable contract.

The district announced the agreement at about 2 p.m. Friday. The parties held a mediation session all day Thursday that lasted until about 11:30 p.m.

The new contract will be retroactive to the start of the fiscal year and run from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

"We think it's a fair agreement," said Superintendent Peggy Cowan. "We value our staff and we look forward to working together, teaming, for a better education for our kids."

Deedie Sorenson, spokeswoman for the teachers' union, said it was disappointing that the agreement is only for one year "because it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy on the part of the bargaining team."

The union soon will send a letter to the district asking to start negotiations on a contract for next school year, Sorenson said.

The parties began negotiating this school year's agreement in December of 2002. They reached impasse by spring, didn't succeed in mediation, and took the issue to an arbitrator this fall, whose nonbinding decision was expected by early December.

In letters to the editor this fall, some teachers had criticized incumbent Juneau School Board candidates for not reaching an agreement.

In comments during School Board meetings, teachers had faulted the district for how it allocated its budget, saying too much was spent on administration. They said working without a contract was demoralizing.

"It has been hard on the district and the schools to have this acrimony," Cowan said. "We're hoping this agreement will end that acrimony and we can move forward in a positive way."

The tentative agreement increases the rates on the salary schedule by 2 percent. The district said it would cost $387,000.

The tentative agreement also incorporates an earlier School Board decision to move eligible teachers up the salary schedule this school year.

Those increases in salary "steps" for added experience are worth 3 percent, the district said. Teachers who also moved into another column on the schedule for earning further college credits, which is at their own expense, received a 0.6 percent increase as well.

About two-thirds of teachers were eligible for step or column movements, Sorenson said.

The cost to the district of the step and column movements is about $550,000, said district Director of Human Resources Patti Carlson.

The tentative agreement also adds $85 per teacher to what the district has paid for monthly health-insurance premiums. The district's contribution will rise from $550 to $635 out of the total per-teacher cost of $793 a month. That increase will cost the district $357,000, Carlson said.

And the agreement increases preparation time for elementary school teachers from 150 minutes a week to 180 minutes a week. Teachers had asked for 250 minutes a week.

Elementary teachers must prepare lessons for all the academic subjects, six or more a day, Sorenson said. Teachers also must prepare lessons to meet the particular needs of small groups of children in a subject such as reading. And increased requirements to assess children individually can't be done during regular class time, Sorenson said.

Three schools already give more than 150 minutes simply by the way they schedule staff time, teachers have said. But the contract will make 180 minutes a week a requirement for all seven elementary schools, including the charter school.

When teachers have their prep time, students are with certificated staff such as gym teachers, music teachers, librarians or counselors.

"We want the amount of time the child is with a teacher to be constant," Sorenson said. "We just shift which teacher they're with."

The cost for adding hours to current staff or hiring new staff, to cover for the increased prep time, might be about $29,000 for the rest of this school year, Carlson said.

At the regular School Board meeting Tuesday, before the new contract had been reached, the district said it expected to have a general fund balance of about $925,000 at the end of this fiscal year. The district previously had projected no fund balance.

The district expects to have to make hard choices in balancing the budget for the next two years, at least, as it faces larger required payments into employee retirement funds.

But, Cowan said of the tentative agreement, "This year we think we can make this happen."

The next step is for the teachers' union to vote on the contract on Dec. 4. If a majority ratifies it, the School Board would have to approve the contract.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com



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