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The unions that represent teachers and support staff at Kenai Peninsula schools may call a strike by the middle of this month, say David Brighton and Anne McCabe, presidents respectively of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.

The unions’ executive boards met at the end of August and voted to strike as soon as Monday, Sept. 16. In May, the union membership voted 3-to-1 in favor of a strike, leaving the date of a strike up to the executive boards.

Negotiations between the associations and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District remain deadlocked, even as school employees begin their second school year working under an expired contract.

The sticking point in over a year and a half of negotiation has been healthcare costs, which the unions say have risen fast enough to eclipse salary increases. 

The associations’ most recent offer would see the district abandon its traditional health plan, instead offering only a pair of high-deductible health plans. It would also see the district covering 95 percent of health care costs, putting the annual cost to employees at approximately $2,450. The Seward Journal calculated that cost based on numbers in the district’s offer.

The current high-deductible plan cost the district almost $7.5 million less than projections had indicated, according to an actuarial analysis released by the district. However, that analysis also predicts that the association’s proposal would cost in the neighborhood of $30 million in fiscal year 2019, around the same as sticking with the district’s current arrangement.

The district’s latest offer appears to largely accept the benefit levels and deductibles proposed by the associations. Where it differs is in the level of district contribution. The district proposes to cover 90 percent of the cost, bringing the employee contribution to almost $4,900 annually.

“This step represents just how serious of an issue healthcare is to our educators and their families,” Brighton said in a press release. “Until the District comes to the table with a realistic proposal that won’t bankrupt families for using their own health insurance, we’ll continue to move towards the strike we voted on in May.”

Interim Superintendent John O’Brien responded to the unions’ announcement with a letter of his own, which he sent to parents and posted on the district website.

“If union leadership calls the strike, this will deny the educational community of its right to a public education and will result in the closure of all schools and all activities that occur in or on school facilities,” O’Brien wrote.

“My efforts are intently focused on reaching an agreement. Any decision to strike is solely the decision of union leaders. The school district remains willing to meet as often and as long as necessary to find a fiscally responsible compromise to reach a tentative agreement and avoid an unnecessary strike.”

O’Brien’s remarks drew a critical response on social media.

Some criticized O’Brien for his focus on “union leaders,” pointing out that the union membership voted in favor of striking this past May. Seward Elementary School teacher and KPEA Vice President Mark Fraad wrote a Labor Day message unfavorably comparing the district’s healthcare costs and wages with those of other Alaska districts. 

“The undeniable fact is, Kenai educators have the highest healthcare premiums and lowest wages of any comparable school district in Alaska,” Fraad wrote. “The truth is that the Kenai is not competitive and, thus, cannot attract and retain educators.”

KPBSD does indeed have the highest healthcare costs of similar school districts, according to the report of arbitrator Dorothy Fallon, who presided over the most recent arbitration attempt between the unions and the district.

“The evidence is irrefutable that it is costing KPBSD more to provide health care coverage, and that employees experience higher costs than virtually all of the other comparable districts,” Fallon wrote in her April 26 recommendation.

Without actual pay data, it is difficult to conclusively determine how KPBSD wages compare to those in other districts, but a comparison of the KPBSD salary schedule to those of the Fairbanks–North Star Borough School District and Anchorage School District does reveal some information.

For instance, the lowest paid KPBSD teachers make less than the lowest paid teachers at Fairbanks schools. That trend holds true when comparing the lowest-paid steps in each employee classification.

Likewise, the highest paid Fairbanks teachers make more than the highest paid KPBSD teachers. This again holds true comparing the highest steps in each employee classification, with the exception of the lowest step.

Fairbanks teachers also require fewer step increases before they reach the top step in their classification, meaning that a step increase for a Fairbanks teacher has a greater impact than a similar raise for a KPBSD teacher.

That said, the overall pay ranges for the two districts are fairly similar. Fairbanks teachers earn between $49,770 and $99,028. KPBSD teachers earn between $48,045 and $91,274.

A similar trend holds for the Anchorage School District, except that Anchorage teachers require a similar number of step increases as a KPBSD teacher to reach the top of their classification. The Anchorage salary schedule for early career teachers also tops out at lower pay than similarly placed KPBSD teachers.

Both the unions and the district agree that it is reasonable to compare Fairbanks and Anchorage with KPBSD, according to Fallon’s report.

The district was not able to respond to an email with questions about the healthcare proposals before the Seward Journal’s print deadline on Tuesday. The parties were scheduled to resume negotiations on Thursdy.