Teachers and parents spoke passionately to the Ketchikan School Board Wednesday, asking the board to negotiate contract improvements for local educators.

Public comment lasted more than an hour, focusing primarily on teacher-contract negotiations. District and Ketchikan Education Association negotiators started mediated talks this week. The district’s contract with teachers expired about a year ago.

While negotiations are officially private, comments by teachers at the lectern and district officials indicate that the main sticking points are salaries and benefits.

Schoenbar Middle School teacher Chad Frey said the district has seen a recent increase in revenue, through the federal Secure Rural Schools program, state special education funding and the local tobacco tax. The district also has an education reserve fund. Frey said all that totals just shy of $8 million.

Frey said teachers aren’t asking the borough to increase the local contribution for education, and aren’t asking for any kind of tax increase to pay for a new contract.

“You don’t have to,” he said. “The district has almost $8 million. That’s a lot of money. Teachers are asking for a simple cost of living adjustment and insurance funding that will make Ketchikan competitive with other districts in the state.”

Frey said without a cost of living adjustment, teacher salaries will not keep up with inflation. As a result, he said, teachers will make less over time. He said the district has not offered any pay increase, or any improvements to health benefits.

Parent Matt Hamilton told the board that his teachers made a huge difference in his life. Teachers helped him learn that he is dyslexic, he said, and one teacher in particular stood up for him at an important moment.

“My teacher, Dave Smith. I talk about that guy all the time. Over and over again,” Hamilton said. “The guy saved my life. My dad was like, ‘It’s time. You gotta drop out, you gotta get a job. It’s killing you, man.’ Dave stood up to my dad. He was like, ‘He’s not going anywhere. Don’t be an idiot.’ Dave was in my wedding. My son’s middle name is David. They’re my family. My coaches are in this room. They deserve a raise, guys.”

Other speakers said teacher pay in Ketchikan is low compared to other Alaska communities, and that the teachers’ insurance plan is the worst among state districts. Another said the district has fewer and less-qualified applicants for jobs than in previous decades, and a parent warned that the community’s children are picking up on stress caused by contentious contract negotiations.

The school board took no action on contract negotiations during Wednesday’s meeting, other than an executive session to get an update from the district’s negotiator.

Following that, some board members offered brief comments about ongoing contract talks. Diane Gubatayao said statements from teachers indicate the real issue is about respect.

“It’s about feeling valued and feeling care,” she said. “That was a pretty common theme and very powerful. It wasn’t just words. There were a lot of feelings behind those words. We really need to take that to heart. There’s much more to this than money.”

Gubatayao is barred from participating in teacher contract negotiations because her daughter is a teacher.

Board Member Alma Parker said she does appreciate teachers, and doesn’t want them to think otherwise. And Board President Trevor Shaw agreed.