Sunday, September 10, 2006

National Education Association Of Alaska Awards No Endorsement Of Any Alaska Gubernatorial Candidate

On Saturday, September 9th, 2006, the National Education Association of Alaska (NEA-Alaska), the union representing more than 13,000 teachers, librarians, custodians and other school workers across Alaska decided not to endorse a candidate in this year's governor race. Instead, the union decided that rather than get behind one candidate, it would be more productive for them to use their time and resources simply to push its education platform during the upcoming campaign. Full story in the Anchorage Daily News, supplemented by a report from KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage.

To forestall any confusion, NEA-Alaska is the umbrella organization overseeing all NEA affiliates throughout Alaska. The Anchorage Education Association is a subordinate affiliate of NEA-Alaska.

After interviewing the three leading candidates on Saturday morning, NEA-Alaska concluded that Democrat Tony Knowles, Republican Sarah Palin and independent Andrew Halcro are all "good apples". NEA-Alaska President Bill Bjork further explained that as the three addressed a crowded meeting of the union's political action committee, they seemed equally well-versed in topics the group cares about most, such as school funding, smaller class sizes and a better retirement system.

In addition, their answers to the union's questions weren't all that different. For example, all three wrote in a questionnaire submitted to NEA-Alaska prior to the primary election that public employees should get 66 percent to 75 percent of their salary when they retire. The recent overhaul of the state's retirement system -- shifting from more traditional defined-benefit pension plans to defined-contribution accounts similar to private sector 401(k) plans. The Alaska State Legislature made the change in 2005, saying the old system was too expensive and faced big shortfalls in the future.

Click here to view Sarah Palin's responses to the referenced questionnaire.

Click here to view Tony Knowles' responses to the questionnaire.

Click here to view Andrew Halcro's responses to the questionnaire.

Libertarian candidate Billy Toien and Alaska Independence Party candidate Don Wright were neither present at the NEA-Alaska gathering nor did they submit a response to the referenced questionnaire.

Knowles said that as governor he'd go back to the old, defined-benefits system, and conduct an independent analysis to see if any tweaks need to be made to stave off shortfalls. Halcro wrote in the questionnaire that he would support returning to a defined-benefits plan -- depending on the specifics of the plan -- as a way to try and entice better teachers to work in Alaska. Palin wrote that both the old defined-benefits retirement system and the new defined-contribution 401(k)-type retirement system have their benefits, and should be studied to decide if a better, third approach could combine the two.

On Saturday, all three said they believe Alaska's teachers are underpaid.

"The good ones are," said Palin, who says that her parents came to Skagway to teach school in the 1960s and that she would be the first "PTA mom" to become Alaska's governor. Halcro -- who laid out an education plan including expansion of pre-K education outside of Title I schools, give laptop computers to all middle school students (a program successfully initiated in Maine by former Independent Governor Angus King), a higher minimum age for dropping out of school, and enhanced vocational training -- says the weakened retirement package makes teachers' overall pay less appealing. Starting pay is OK, he said, but teachers will soon leave to find better retirement benefits. Knowles has called for a state trust fund to help pay for education, and said Saturday that attracting good teachers means the state not only has to have competitive pay, but a safe work environment and an attractive retirement deal.

Another reason that NEA-Alaska chose not to award an endorsement is the union's policy not to endorse a candidate unless he or she convinced nearly 700 union members from across the state to pledge to help in his or her campaign. None of the three got enough union members to sign up. A motion to suspend the rules and endorse Knowles -- who collected the most signatures from union members -- failed to get the necessary three-quarters vote, Bjork said.

NEA-Alaska also didn't endorse a candidate in 2002, when Knowles' former lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer, was running against eventual winner Frank Murkowski. The union's president at the time, Rich Kronberg, said in 2002 that the committee preferred Ulmer but was more interested in getting out its pro-education message. Bjork said the union didn't have a clear preference this time.

NEA-Alaska endorsed Democrat Steve McAlpine for governor in 1994, according to Daily News archives, but hasn't endorsed a gubernatorial candidate since. It backed Knowles in his 2004 U.S. Senate race against the eventual winner, Lisa Murkowski.

Analysis: All three of these candidates want to spend more on public education, which is the main reason why NEA-Alaska considers them "good apples". Costs of goods and services has risen, and underfunded Federal mandates further exacerbate increases. However, it's frustrating to see school employees constantly demanding more money, although Sarah Palin, to her credit, wants to reserve the biggest increases for the best teachers.

Unfortunately, inflationary pressures on housing and energy costs mean teachers are losing ground financially. A letter written by Tony R. Schmidt of Anchorage, entitled "Anchorage Teachers Merit A Raise That Keep Up With The Cost Of Living", published in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News, effectively articulates teacher frustration.

I am proud to be an Anchorage schoolteacher and I love my job. Some of you seem to feel that I am paid too much already or that I am not deserving of a decent raise. You are certainly entitled to your opinions, and I respect them, but now it's time to express mine.

As for how much I make, how many of you are aware that I have well over $1,000 taken out of my check each month? Not just the usual taxes but also retirement deductions, union dues and health insurance. What I am left with each month is hardly reflective of the annual salary that some would label as adequate, or even excessive. My wife and I both work, and yet we cannot afford to buy a house in this town.

I give 110 percent and more every day for your kids. I go home each day mentally and physically exhausted. And yet some still argue that I am not deserving of a contract that merely allows me to keep up with the rate of inflation, never mind get ahead. I challenge these people to make it through even one school day doing the job that I do, let alone for nine months or for what I get paid.

It's extremely outrageous that a working couple cannot afford to buy a home in Anchorage. It's no wonder Anchorage teachers recently rejected a three-year contract despite a positive recommendation by the AEA negotiating team. However, to continue to endlessly throw pay raises at public sector employees without examining and addressing other causative factors is no different than buying more crack for a crack addict; the addict will always need more crack.

And what are one of the major causative factors of this couple unable to afford a house? Too many buyers chasing too few homes limited by too little land to build them on. And the land is there, if we have the guts to use it. Nearly one-third of the Anchorage Bowl (defined as the area from the military bases in the north to Potter's Marsh in the south) is parkland. Why? Is this a luxury we can continue to afford? Do we have a right to make single-family housing only available to the rich just so we can maintain all this ridiculous parkland? I was driving east on O'Malley just last week, looking at the endless expanse of Ruth Arcand Park, and though "What a frigging waste! Just think how we could mitigate our housing shortage if we were to sacrifice just a small part of this park." It's not as if we don't have alternatives. The entire Chugach Range east of the city is available for recreating. Of course, too many of our "recreators" are a bunch of lazy wusses - I just read a story last week where a bunch of crybabies wanted the Lazy Mountain Trail turned into a quasi-freeway because the grade's too steep for them. BOO-FRIGGING-HOO! Maybe if recreation was a bit more onerous and challenging our society wouldn't be infested with so many fatasses.

And our gubernatorial candidates have a chance to address this issue, also. It's time for them to consider making more state land available for purchase to alleviate the housing shortage (which, by the way, will create more property taxpayers). Land sales would also generate more revenue for the state. It's time for them to also vigorously proclaim their support for the Knik Arm Bridge to effectively open up more land on the Point Mackenzie side. And if this causes Anchorage residential property owners to have to sacrifice the completely undeserved windfall appreciation they've experienced, too bad! It's time America stopped subsidizing the rich!!! And I put the blame straight on the top. By esteeming unearned income over earned income, the Bush Administration has imposed parasitism and unleashed class warfare upon this nation.

The final point being that to effectively mitigate inflation and stifle demands for ever-increasing salaries, we must address the root causes.

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