Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Anchorage Teachers Reject Proposed Three-Year Contract

Anchorage School District (ASD) teachers and employees voted to reject a proposed three-year contract tonight. Union officials have not yet disclosed the precise vote. However, a teacher strike is neither imminent nor inevitable. A composite post combining reports from the Anchorage Daily News and KTUU Channel 2.

This is the second agreement teachers have shot down since May. When district and union officials unveiled this proposal two weeks ago, they called it a fair compromise, a better offer than the last one and urged teachers to support it. The union's entire bargaining team unanimously supported the proposed agreement at the time. However, during the past few weeks, members of the Anchorage Education Association (AEA), which represents the teachers and most other ASD employees complained publicly that the new deal wasn’t much better than the previously rejected deal, and it was simply not good enough.

Click here to view the full contract from ASD's website. Overall, the three-year deal would have cost the district about $44 million more in salaries and benefits than last year's contract, plus another $2 million to pay for more planning time for elementary-school teachers. The contract would have extended from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2009. Here are the principle provisions:

(1) Three percent raises in the first and second years of the deal and 2.75 percent raises in the third, with additional raise opportunities based upon experience and education

(2) The district would pay $790 in the first year and $890 in the second year toward teachers' monthly health insurance premiums. The third-year offer is slightly less.

(3) An increase in planning time for elementary school teachers from 180 minutes the first year to 210 minutes in the second year and 240 minutes in the third year (middle and high school teachers get 250 minutes per week).

(4) An additional $1,000 bonus to experienced teachers who have reached the top of the salary scale.

Some complained the proposal didn’t contain enough new money -- that the bargaining process seemed a shell game, with negotiators simply moving money around instead of adding more. Internet message boards sprung up, and while some people posted notes supporting the deal, many urged its defeat and said teachers have too long settled for unfair contracts.

After casting his vote Wednesday at West High School, long-time teacher and one-time bargaining team member Gino DeCervo said the union’s negotiating team did the best it could under the circumstances. He still voted no. DeCervo had predicted a contract defeat, based on what colleagues were saying. “If this passes, life goes on,” DeCervo said. “It’s not the end of the world. And if it doesn’t pass, life goes on. There are still kids in the classroom. That’s what matters. And that’s why I do this job.”

As mentioned earlier, a strike is far from imminent or inevitable. The next step is that the negotiating teams will return to the table to see if they can work out another deal together. Most likely the AEA will deploy a new negotiating team for this round. If this fails, they can agree to more mediation through Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, with a mediator agreed upon by both parties. Or, the bargaining teams can call on a federal arbitrator for assistance, often a professional from American Arbitration Services. However, both sides must agree on an arbitrator, which can be difficult. Scheduling and preparing for arbitration can take a month or more. Once the arbitrator gets written presentations from both sides, it can take another month to render an opinion. That opinion is nonbinding and either side can accept or ignore it. So we're talking at least 2-3 months. Most likely the earliest threat of a strike would be after the Christmas-New Year break.

Analysis: ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau (pictured at left with AEA President Ron Fuhrer on Aug. 18th, when they announced the deal - photo courtesy of Anchorage Daily News) discussed this issue both on Dan Fagan's KFQD radio talk show and on KTUU's 10 P.M. news program. She seemed disappointed in the apparent gap in expectations between the AEA's leadership and the rank-and-file. She questioned whether the AEA leadership was really in tune with the membership (the Murkowski Syndrome, perhaps?). She believes AEA membership has serious misconceptions about available money, even to the point where some might believe ASD has a secret "rainy-day fund".

Comeau also believes the AEA does not thoroughly understand the differences between ASD's financial reach and the reach exercised by many districts in the Lower 48. While many Lower 48 districts have their own taxation and bonding power, ASD has none, being required to submit all requests to the Anchorage Municipal Assembly. This means ASD has less flexibility to respond financially than other districts.

Comeau also suggested that one way to eliminate future threats of teachers' strikes would be to follow the example of the cops and the firefighters and institute binding arbitration. This is an excellent idea that lawmakers ought to seriously consider. Kids should not be held hostage to labor disputes.

While teachers have understandable concerns, they must remain sensitive to how much support taxpayers are willing to expend. Many taxpayers have ideological concerns about public education, occasionally fueled by a hyperliberal national NEA organization. Back in June, the national NEA passed a resolution linking teacher credentialing with acceptance of the homosexual agenda. Even ASD has not been totally free of controversy, having allowed the use of the semi-pornographic "House of the Spirits" novel as a primary textbook for A.P. Literature. ASD also allows Gay-Straight Clubs at two high schools.

And fallout from social issues impacts school bond passage. School bonds are difficult enough to pass under normal conditions; any controversy can scuttle them. Last spring, voters protested increased taxes and fees not by removing the Mayor (Mark Begich) who imposed them, but by voting down numerous bonds to "send a message", regardless of the absolute merit of the bonds themselves. If teachers strike, voters could exact revenge by reflexively voting down all school bonds for the next five years. Teachers deserve more, but they must be sensitive to the local financial climate. And don't forget, sentiment for vouchers continues to build. House District 25 Republican candidate Thomas Lamb has built incrementally-increasing support over numerous elections by consistently advocating vouchers, and with the iconoclastic, somewhat soporific first-time candidate Mike Doogan as an opponent, Lamb has an excellent chance of being elected in November. And if Lamb wins, more pro-voucher candidates will surface.

My advice to teachers - get as much as you can, but don't ask for more than we're willing to give.

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