The Ketchikan School District seal is on display at the superintendent’s office. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

After another failed round of negotiations between the Ketchikan Education Association and the school district on May 30th, the process is moving into non-binding arbitration.

“Both the district and KEA were unable to come to an agreement in which case the talks ended and we decided to go to the next steps on how to proceed, which is essentially arbitration.”

That’s Sarah Campbell, president of Ketchikan Education Association. Teacher contract negotiations started more than a year and a half ago, and a compromise still hasn’t been reached. Under the district’s most recent three-year contract proposal, in the first year, each teacher would receive a 1.5 percent increase to the base salary. One-point-five percent of base pay is $700. Campbell says offering $700 does not adequately compensate those at a higher pay scale.

“Essentially what they did is the person with zero experience who is a brand new teacher will get a 1.5 percent increase. But a person who has a Master’s degree and over 36 other additional graduate credits and 19 years of experience will also get $700 or it’s the equivalent of $3 a day. Three-dollars a day isn’t even the price of a latte.”

Campbell says the union is seeking a cost-of-living increase.

School Superintendent Robert Boyle says the district’s proposal is reasonable.

“The proposal we put forward increases the average salary in our district to the sixth highest in the state. It’s an aggressive offer that keeps us in what we think is a pretty competitive position in making sure that we recruit and retain the best teachers.”

Another point of contention is health insurance benefits. Campbell says the current health insurance package is inadequate, providing diminished benefits to teachers.  She says the health insurance fund has been mismanaged.

“The district is co-mingling insurance premiums which essentially creates an inequity in the employee’s out of pocket costs. It’s KEA’s belief that the district’s mismanagement of the health insurance is wrong if not illegal.”

Campbell says there has been a negative deficit in the health insurance pool since 2009. Under its proposal, the union is requesting a $1.7 million expenditure in the first year. Campbell says most of that money is to address the insurance deficit.

Boyle acknowledges there is an insurance deficit, but the issue is complicated.

“What we’ve attempted to do is to construct a program that slowly recovers from significant debt that that fund incurred several years ago. So we’ve been gradually reducing that. At the same time, you’re challenged with increasing costs in medical bills and increasing consumption by employees.”

Boyle says though payments from the pool have increased by $3 million since the fund first went into debt, the borough is making progress toward eliminating the deficit.

Boyle says the $1.7 million request exceeds the district’s spending authority.  He says the union’s overall proposal would drain the reserve fund and exceeds the local contributioon cap in year three.

“Year three of the KEA proposal actually exceeds the cap imposed on the district by the State of Alaska. So if we even agreed to it, we couldn’t fund it unless we cut staff members somewhere, somehow, in order to reduce the expenditure that goes with it.”

Boyle says funding the union’s proposal would also require an increase in property taxes.

Campbell disagrees, and says KEA is not advocating for a property tax increase.

“That statement right there I think is one that’s put out there to kind of scare the community a little bit. Our proposal, really if you take insurance out of the equation, is about $350,000 total in year-one of our proposal, and they can definitely fund that. There’s no need to raise property taxes in Ketchikan to properly fund education.”

KEA has requested arbitration. Neither Campbell nor Boyle is certain how long that process will take or when an arbitrator will be assigned.  If arbitration fails, the union could consider a strike.