For the third straight school year, teachers in the Anchorage School District might yet again start a another school year without a new contract.

"We're in the precarious position of possibly starting school again without a contract and that is a little bit disheartening," said Anchorage Education Association President Tom Klaameyer. "I'm cautiously optimistic that some progress can be made, but I can say that our members are pretty disheartened that this isn't done."

Teachers' last contract didn't get ratified until February. It expired June 30. 

"Our members certainly don't have the appetite for another prolonged negotiation like that," Klaameyer said. "I can tell you that with all assurances."

Klaameyer says a number of factors have played into the slow-moving negotiations, including this year's Anchorage School Board elections.

"That took some time that we certainly didn't have," Klaameyer said. "It took them a while to get up to speed."

According to Klaameyer and Todd Hess, ASD's head of human resources, there are nine articles that have yet to be signed off on.

"The nine articles are open for negotiation," Hess said. "They were mutually agreed to in our prior bargaining session and agreed to be reopened this time around. Money and health insurance are two very large items in those nine."

Both sides have agreed on the length of a new contract being three years. However, both sides are still very far apart when it comes to salary.

AEA is asking for a 3.75 percent increase in the first year, followed by 3.25 percent increases in the next two years. The district is offering no increase for the first year, .5 percent in the second and 1 percent in the third.

"Frankly, what's on the table right now isn't going to cut it," Klaameyer said. "I think if the district wants to get serious about demonstrating their respect and desire to attract and retain quality teachers which they say they do, it needs to manifest itself into something material."  

The state Legislature kicked in an additional $5.5 million to the district's budget, some of which Klaameyer says is usually set aside for negotiations. This year that budget line is gone, and 40 percent of it is unallocated.

"The good thing is, with the work the Legislature did, there were not massive pink slips in the spring so that uncertainty is not there -- especially for our newest members," Klaameyer said. "Even with the additional monies given by the Legislature only a small portion of that was unallocated; where did it go?"

The school district says there are many plans for the use of those funds. 

"There are a variety of needs throughout [ASD]," Hess said. "We have over 6,000 employees, multiple labor groups as well as a variety of a number of facility needs, curriculum needs; there are many demands on that money."

For Klaameyer, the negotiations hinge on school issues rather than fiscal issues.

"The budget document is a planning document and is less about money and more about priorities," Klaameyer said. "Teachers are advocating for a numbers of items including safety, staffing numbers, recess for students and transitions between classes and stability for middle school schedules."

The school district feels the bigger issue is teacher salaries and benefits.

"Well there are continuing concerns from employees and one of the complicating factors for public employers throughout the state of Alaska is our current state economic climate and state budgetary restrictions that public employers are facing." Hess said. "Money and health insurance are two very large items within those nine items unsigned on the table."

What is the likelihood a deal is done before the start of the school year?

"This is the third year in a row of having to go through this and I'm not sure anyone really likes the process," Klaameyer said. "It gets wearing on our members and on the district as well."

The district says the recent "Red for Ed" movements across the country and the teacher rallies held outside the ASD headquarters have had an impact in the current collective bargaining negotiations.

"The district is very appreciative of the efforts of our teachers," Hess said. "They do the work and they work with our students. We're very encouraged by the high quality and the level of education in our community."

The AEA also fought for open bargaining and the district reluctantly agreed. 

"Casting a little sunshine on the process, I think, is healthy for everybody." Klaameyer said. "So we know where our priorities are and where the tax money is going and the process itself of negotiations. Until we have a deal, we operate under the old contract so it's not like there is no contract, it's called dynamic status quo. We're not going to lock into multi-year bad contracts, we can do that one year at a time right? We're just hoping to wrap things up one way or another. If we can't get to an agreement maybe get some help and go into mediation to move further down the process if we have to."

The next round of negotiations takes place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 7 at ASD headquarters at 5530 E. Northern Lights Blvd. It is open to the public.

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