Teacher contract negotiations between the Ketchikan School District and Ketchikan Education Association are headed to mediation.

According to Superintendent Robert Boyle, that mediation is scheduled to start on April 10. He told the Ketchikan School Board last week that both sides requested that step after failing to make headway.

The lack of forward movement in teacher contract talks was the main topic of conversation during last week’s school board meeting. Several teachers spoke about the issue during public comment, and board members addressed it later in the meeting.

Several teachers spoke only about how much they love teaching the community’s youth. Others spoke more directly about teacher pay and benefits.

Leigh Woodward compared teachers’ health insurance costs to other groups, including other Ketchikan Gateway Borough employees. She said she and her husband, both borough teachers, pay $589 a month with a $700 per-person deductible, and an out-of-pocket maximum of $10,500.

“A quick internet search yielded the following numbers: Individuals with the borough pay $25 a month. Families also pay $25 a month. Their individual deductibles are $350 a month and as a family it’s $1,050. They also have a $1,500 out-of-pocket benefit,” she said.

Woodward also compared Ketchikan teachers’ health insurance to other school districts in the state, and said Ketchikan fall short there, too.

Caitlin Jacobson compared salaries of Ketchikan teachers to those in other Alaska school districts.

Superintendent Boyle had written in a memo that Ketchikan’s teachers’ salaries are on average the 11th highest of about 40 districts. Jacobson said taking an average is not an accurate comparison, because each district is a unique mix of experience and credentials.

“Because of their high levels of experience and education, if you were to take Ketchikan’s entire pool of teachers and place them on the Fairbanks (school district) salary schedule, they would have an average salary of $75,815 annually,” she said. “This would be $5,027 more per year than they get on the Ketchikan salary schedule.”

Jacobson said Ketchikan’s salaries also compare poorly with Juneau’s when using that comparison method rather than averages.

She and other teachers who spoke say good pay and benefits are important when trying to attract and retain teachers, and maintain Ketchikan’s quality schools.

Board Member Kim Hodne asked Superintendent Boyle how many teachers leave Ketchikan because they’re dissatisfied with pay. He also asked how many applications the district receives when there’s an opening for a new teacher.

Boyle responded that most teachers leave because of retirement or they’re moving away for other reasons. He said the district can receive up to 15 applications for an open position.

Participating by phone, Hodne said that information contrasts with earlier public comment from teachers.

“We have many teachers with 20 years of more teaching, 15 years or more,” he said. “So, actually, contrary to what I heard at the beginning of the meeting, Ketchikan School District is extremely fortunate in the fact that many teachers actually want to come to Ketchikan and teach in Ketchikan for probably many various reasons.”

Board Members Alma Parker and Diane Gubatayao thanked teachers who spoke about why they love their jobs.

Gubatayao asked about the possibility of opening up negotiations.

“At some point, I think KEA wanted to have public negotiations and I’ve heard a number of board members say ‘transparency’ (and) ‘why don’t we do this in public?’ So, I don’t know. Where are we with that? Is that a consideration?” she said.

Board President Trevor Shaw said current ground rules stipulate that negotiations be held behind closed doors. Both sides would have to agree to new ground rules before that could change.

Teachers’ contracts with the Ketchikan School District expired in July of 2017.