Seward Journal logo-color

Steep cuts to education proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy have inspired rare concurrence between two groups that have been at an impasse for over year. 

At a meeting convened Friday at Resurrect Art, representatives from both the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the unions that represent borough educators spoke against the cuts, and appealed to parents and community members to rally against the governor’s budget.

Local union representative and Seward Elementary teacher Mark Fraad called the meeting, which brought frustrated teachers and parents to discuss a worsening crisis for school’s borough-wide.

Dunleavy’s budget proposal comes at an already trying time for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which has been mired in contract negotiations for months now.

With negotiations stalled, teachers for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are working with no assurance that their wages will even keep up with inflation. 

The cuts in Dunleavy’s budget would cost the school district around $20 million in 2020, according to Assistant Superintendent John O’Brien. The district has made cuts for the last several years already, in response to decreased support from the state. KPBSD’s 2019 budget came in just shy of $143 million. 

O’Brien and Kenai Peninsula Education Association President David Brighton both decried the governor’s proposal and urged parents to contact their legislators.

“The governor is proposing a 25 percent cut,” Brighton said of the cuts to the state Department of Education. “Do we close every fourth door in our schools? The district isn’t going to let that happen. They’re going to have to let a bunch of teachers go, and class sizes are going to go up.” 

“I don’t want to live in Mike Dunleavy’s Alaska,” Brighton added. “We can’t survive cuts like this.”

O’Brien echoed Brighton’s remarks.

“Negotiations aside, we truly do need to coalesce and come together if we’re going to convince legislators that the Alaska we want is not the one where this 25 percent cut happens,” O’Brien said.

The discussion at Resurrect Art brought out the concerns of parents Emily Alsup, whose daughter attends Seward Elementary, and Jan Bukac, whose three children attend Seward public schools.

“My youngest is in first grade. I was shocked this year when she had 28 kids in her class,” said Emily Alsup, parent of a first grader at Seward Elementary. “Can you imagine forty first graders?”

Bukac is dismayed by the state of his children’s schools.

“If the education system keeps going like this, I’m going to have to end up moving,” he said.

As the school year approaches its final quarter, teachers at borough schools remain without a contract for the 2018–2019 school year. The teachers have worked over 100 days under the terms of an expired agreement despite over a year of negotiations between the district and the two unions that represent teachers and support staff at area schools.

The looming budget crunch threatens to overshadow the ongoing disagreement between the district and the teacher’s unions, a prospect that concerns teachers like Julie DeBord, a special education teacher at Seward Elementary, who worried that this would give the district another reason to delay negotiations.

 “There is no good faith bargaining right now,” DeBord said. “This is a stall tactic. They’re going to use this as a big thing. ‘Sorry, we’re down $20 million.’”

The terms of collective bargaining in the school district leave both sides with a powerful ‘nuclear option’ to force the other’s hand, but little other leverage. 

If the negotiations do not conclude by the middle of this year, the school district may impose its last best offer. On the other side, the union could call a strike, as has recently happened in Los Angeles and Denver, and West Virgina whose teachers went on strike Tuesday.

The issue took the spotlight at the latest meeting of the school board, at which hundreds of educators staged a walk-out that carried overtones of a strike.

The parties have already been through mediation and have called in an arbitrator. However, the arbitrator’s decision will be non-binding, which could leave negotiations exactly where they are today.

The district and unions exchanged offers late last year, according to an interview with Brighton and remarks by O’Brien, but could not come to an agreement. The district’s offer would have covered the 2018–2019 school year, and included a one-time bonus of $500 but no raises or other adjustments, O’Brien said.

“The district had no idea how dire the governor’s budget was going to be, so it was no in position to offer anything beyond this year,” O’Brien said. 

This does not satisfy DeBord.

“I bring home less right now than I did for the last five years,” DeBord added, referring to the impact of inflation on KPBSD teachers’ salaries, which have not seen increases since 2014. “My husband is going to get a $1.10/hour increase.”

“He makes more than I do, and he doesn’t have a college education,” DeBord said of her husband, a correctional officer. “I am not going to settle for zero percent.”