The Anchorage School District and the teachers' union have been going round-and-round with contract negotiations since June. Tensions are high and culminated in a walkout staged at this week's school board meeting.

Now, the two sides are trying to work through mediation, where an unbiased third-party helps people negotiate an agreement. So far, it's been rocky. A second try at deliberation ended early Thursday morning without a contract.

"We just couldn't close the deal," AEA president Tom Klaameyer said. "It was 1:30 a.m. and it just didn't look like it was going to happen."

The teacher's union wasn't the only side that felt let down.

"It was very late," ASD chief of human resources Todd Hess said. "Both teams were tired. Both teams were profoundly disappointed that we had not reached an agreement."

They left the bargaining table feeling mediation had come to an end. Arbitration, where an unbiased third-party hears both sides and hands down a judgment, was the next step.

"We went through the list and selected an arbitrator that we would reach out to see if they were available," Hess said. "If, in fact, we needed that."

In arbitration, unlike mediation, the third-party is not going to try to find a compromise. The arbitrators listen to arguments and evidence from both sides in order to submit a report with a decision based on what they've heard. The report is delivered to both parties, which must sit down together one more time to negotiate the findings. Either side can reject the arbitrator's report. It's at that time that the district can impose their last best offer and the labor members can vote to strike if they want.

Another twist: the arbitrator's ruling is non-binding. So what's to keep both sides from walking away?

"If you assume that everyone or one side is going to ignore the arbitrator's report," Klaameyer said. "I guess it would be pointless. The whole system is designed to prevent the kind of job actions that shut down a work environment. In this case, would result in closing schools for students while the adults hash it out. There is a will from our side to do that if it comes to that, but there is a greater desire to solve it and have a contract. Frankly, I feel that is better for our community and for our students in the short run."

As it turns out, an arbitrator won't be needed just yet. On Thursday, the mediation team decided that both sides had made enough progress to schedule another two-day bout of negotiations.

"I think we are close," Hess said. "Both sides agreed to sit down and meet again with the mediator, so I think that is an extremely positive sign."

There are still six articles in the contract left outstanding, including teacher pay and benefits, more safety and teachers in special education classrooms, as well as academic freedom in the classroom. 

The next round of mediation will be scheduled for the next couple of weeks. If a deal can't be reached, arbitration would happen in early 2019.

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